We live in tumultuous times. It has frequently felt over the last few days, weeks and months as if the edifices of twentieth century Britain are starting to be dismantled, and football is not free from the times being a-changing. When the independent panel released its findings into the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, it felt like a watershed moment. Not particularly because the most substantive part of the findings were anything new – far from it: the families campaigning for truth and justice had been shouting what has now become common knowledge from their rooftops for more than two decades – but because it laid bare the inner workings of an actual, real life conspiracy, a systematic smearing of the names of the dead for the sole reason of covering up the shortcomings of those charged with the responsibility of maintaining public safety on that horrible, horrible day twenty-three years ago. The truth can hurt, but it has been necessary to go through this process as the first stage in achieving justice for those who died that day.
If Hillsborough is a boil on the face of English football that needs to be lanced, though, we are still at the diagnosis stage with the other headline-grabber of the last few weeks and months: racism. The last year or so has been an uncomfortable time for those amongst us who value this game as a sport. Many of us believed – or wanted to believe so much that we allowed ourselves a three wise monkeys policy on the matter – that this was a problem that we had under control, but we were wrong. The can of worms opened by Luis Suarez and John Terry a little over a year ago proved be fuller than we would have expected it to be, and the aftershocks of the events of last season have carried over long into this season, with little sign of any respite in sight. An easy problem to draw broad brushstrokes over yet fiendishly difficult to get to the bottom of, English footballs racism crisis has proved to be a gift that keeps on giving, and while it continues to feel uncomfortable, it remains a conversation that we need to have with ourselves and each other.
The easy, route one option to take is to blame the players concerned for their idiocy and those supporters so partisan that they allow said players to develop a persecution complex over their own behaviour for the same. This is not without merit (although it does now carry the feeling of flogging a dead horse to keep repeating these mantras) , but it doesn’t get to what is now becoming apparent to be the root cause of the problem: the continued bungling of the authorities in terms of dealing conclusively with the matter at hand. How did no-one at the FA stop to consider how banning John Terry for half of the amount that of time that they banned Luis Suarez for would be perceived in the outside world? Did they really think that the explanation of Terry only having made his comment once rather than repeatedly as a justification for this would wash with anybody? We noted in our recent podcast that the FA deserved some praise for for the decisive tone of their verdict over John Terry, but to get this sort of thing right once isn’t enough. Whatever plaudits they earned from this have swiftly evaporated with the subsequent sanction that they applied, and deservedly so.
If one was to seek to write a footballing equivalent to The Thick Of It, the events of the last few weeks would have provided enough material for an entire series. We’ve had players refusing to wear anti-racism t-shirts in protest at the leniency of the John Terry ban. We’ve seen Terry retire from international football the night before the FAs verdict on his behaviour was confirmed and then told to wear an anti-racism armband by UEFA, as if that could possibly mean or make any difference to anybody, anywhere. We’ve seen the Serbian FA apparently seeking to blame the behaviour of a crowd on their watch on a player that had been racially abused by those self same people. We’ve seen the Premier League, for all the power that they hold within English football, almost silent on the events of the last few weeks and months.
We have, in short, seen absolute, bungling incompetence at every turn by those whose first responsibility should be to act decisively in order to keep this shit out of our game. It’s difficult to believe that the FA, UEFA or whoever are themselves institutionally racist (though some would argue that even this point is moot), but it’s not difficult to reach the conclusion that this constant application of ill-fitting sticking plasters to the matter is little more than a series of ongoing acts of amelioration by bodies that haven’t thought very far beyond wishing that the events of the last twelve months or so would just go away. They won’t, and a clear line in the sand needs to be drawn on the issue. Whether this can be managed or not is not a question that can be answered at present. We might, however, posit that that the FAs verdict on John Terry and its subsequent sanction brought against him demonstrates a concept which borders upon the abstract: that there is no such thing as “the Football Association” – merely a lot of rooms with committees in them which are doomed to spend eternity contradicting each other. With this in mind, my final words on racism and football run roughly as follows:
- Racism is A Bad Thing, but repeating this over and over again remains worthwhile.
- The FA, UEFA, the Premier League, the PFA and clubs themselves have created a monster that they are now unable to rein in. They all need to rip up their books and start again, with a fundamental aim of zero tolerance and no room for either interpretation or misinterpretation from anybody on the subject.
- Whilst it is unfortunate that Kick It Out were the target of protest last weekend, that black players took it upon themselves to make this protest is both admirable and a reflection of the inertia of the above bodies.
- This in itself might set light bulbs flickering in the various committees – how many of those handing out judgements, and specifically punishments, were white, and therefore have no first hand experience of racist abuse and the hurt that it must bring?
- Not all supporters of any particular club are “racists”, but there are too many football supporters who don’t call out their own players when they behave dreadfully in many different ways. Anybody doing so is not “disloyal” to their clubs.
- Racism is a societal problem rather than specifically footballs problem, and for all the bad publicity the Kick Racism Out Of Football campaign has received over the last week, football has taken the lead in society in at least getting an anti-racism message into society.
The biggest crises can get turned into opportunities with a little lateral thinking and bravery. Perhaps, though, when we look at those charged with the running of our game, we’re asking for the impossible in wishing that this will be the case.
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