Blatter, Suarez And The Increasingly Muddled Racism Debate
There is no irony in the fact that Sepp Blatter’s extremely ill-advised comments on racism – “We are in a game, and at the end of the game we shake hands, and this can happen, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination” – came on the same day that the Football Association charged Luis Suarez with using “abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour towards Manchester United’s Patrice Evra” including “a reference to the ethnic origin and/or colour and/or race of Patrice Evra.” This is merely a coincidence. That these two stories should come together on the same day does, however, only serve to further highlight the key story of a dismal opening few weeks to the new season.
Sepp Blatter is seventy-five years old. We should, perhaps, not be particularly surprised that somebody of his age would think that racist slurs can be mitigated in any way with a shake of the hand at the end of a match, however appalling such a notion might be. What is more surprising is that somebody that has been in the public eye for such a long time – he has been the president of FIFA for nine years – would not be able to stop, check himself and not make such thoughts public. In a television interview. With CNN. Of course, reference to his age is no mitigation for what these comments and the media outcry in this country was immediate and justified. Mright this be enough, though, to cause him to fall from his current position of power?
The answer to that question is almost probably “no”. There has been some indication so far that the story has picked up a little traction outside of this obstreperous isle – the story appears half-way down the front page of the Spanish sports website Marca, while the French newspaper Le Monde’s site – at the time of writing – only features the somewhat skimpy AFP report and the Italian site Corriere dello Sport only has a short video clip on the subject, and international outrage will need to well up considerably more than this for Blatter to start to feel exposed. He doesn’t need to ascribe English outrage to the lingering taste of sour grapes over the failure to land the 2018 World Cup finals, but it is a though that will undoubtedly cross a few minds this evening, even though he should obviously be answerable for the comments that he passed.
The message on the FIFA website this evening was loud and clear, and it seemed to say, ‘some of my best friends are black. There may be something ironic in such comments coming from the man who brought the World Cup finals to Africa for the first time, and the other vulnerability may even come from Blatter’s lineage. He was the protege of Joao Havelange, who ousted Stanley Rous as the president of FIFA in 1974 through the skilful mobilisation of African and Asian votes. Indeed, Blatter himself has dredged up the dim and distant past himself comparatively recently, but it may be worth pausing to consider whether what the federations that elected him make of such comments.
So, if Blatter is left a little red-faced but ultimately unlikely to be deposed, then what are we to make of the charges brought against Luis Suarez by the Football Association this evening? The answer to this is, of course, “we don’t know”, at present. Except, of course, this isn’t correct, in one sense. Supporters have already decided – largely, it would seem, on the basis of which club they support – whether Suarez is guilty or not. “Way to suck it up to Mr Alex Ferguson, bunch of twats from the FA” was one comment from the Liverpool supporters Red & White Kop last night, whilst one contributor to the Manchester United forum commented that, “If LFC does not fire this twat, they are condoning racism.”
In other words, minds have been made up and don’t seem likely to be changing any time soon. Indeed, it seems unlikely that many minds will change even after the FA decide whether to find Suarez guilty of the charges issued against him or not. It still feels as if the tone of the debate regarding each of the cases which has hit the headlines over the course of recent weeks has started to cheapen an issue which remains one of the game’s most critical priorities. If people get “sick” of allegations of racism or if the authorities begin to treat allegations made as being little more than gamesmanship, then we have a major problem, and a problem from which football may not be able to extricate itself. Each allegation made needs to be treated seriously, just as each unsavoury comment from an administrator should be castigated. Whether that is something that will become more difficult or not with each round of accusation and counter-accusation is something that we will only find out on the fullness of time.
As with the John Terry case, we can only wait and see what conclusions are reached by those carrying out the investigations before reaching our own over the character of the individual concerned. Between those that have already reached their decision and those that will opt to see conspiracy no matter what conclusion is reached, though, it seems likely that this debate will continue to become shriller and shriller and that the presumptions already reached will not change. For Sepp Blatter, meanwhile, this is just another storm to ride out, but if the delegates of FIFA have cause to stop and consider the character of the man that they chose to elect so enthusiastically re-elect last year, then an argument of some sort may have been won. It still feels, however, that Blatter will hold onto his position – FIFA has recently demonstrated how resistant it is to root and branch change, and ill-thought out comments in an interview would be unlikely to force him out. And all the time, the blue sky thinkers lurk in the background, waiting for their opportunity to divide and conquer. We are stuck, in some respects, between a rock and a hard place on the racism debate in football at the moment.
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