Solidarity with Haringey
Hidden in plain sight in the narrative of the fallout from last week’s match between Bulgaria and England was the fundamental truth that England also needs to get its house in order over racism as well. The pre-match comments of those who have since resigned their positions within the Bulgarian FA may have been overstated, but to pretend that racism hasn’t been a huge problem in football in this country and that it has been on the rise again in recent years is doublethink of the first order. Forward strides have been made over the last few decades, of that there is no question. But we’ve also been taking backward steps of late, both within football and within society in a wider context.
For a long time, there has been a tendency to other people involved in acts of racist behaviour. To talk about them as though they’re a different species to the rest of us. For how long, though, can we atomise blame for this sort of behaviour in this way? Surely there has to come a point at which some degree of collective responsibility for this comes into play. And yeah, it sucks because it’s us this time, but the only way we’re going to properly lance this particular boil is by taking it on rather than shying away from it. We should be angry. We should be angry at people who behave in that way in the first place. We should be angry that even a small minority – which we’ll take for the truth in the example of yesterday’s incident – can still consider that such dehumanising behaviour can be acceptable.
To recap: during Saturday’s FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round match between Haringey Borough and Yeovil Town at Coles Park, the Haringey goalkeeper Valery Douglas Pajetat was reportedly spat at and hit by an object thrown by Yeovil Town supporters, whilst defender Coby Rowe was also racially abused. After sixty-four minutes of the match had been played, the Haringey manager Tom Loizou took the players from the pitch. He would later say that, “there was no way I could let him continue.”
So, before I say anything else: #NotAllYeovilFans. Obviously. But, natural though defensiveness might well be, it probably shouldn’t be the first thought that comes to mind, should your club find itself in this sort of invidious position. The rest of us should, however, also remember that Yeovil Town is a victim here. This is on the permanent record now, and there’s nothing whatsoever that the club can do about that. For the Yeovil supporters that are not like that, and for the club itself, this is obviously a deeply shaming moment.
Did you notice, there, the reflexive reaction to not talk about the incident itself, but to seek to qualify myself with Yeovil Town supporters first? It speaks volumes that the automatic reaction to a racist incident should be to jump to the defence of the group within which this subset could be found. Yes, this story involves Yeovil Town. But this story is primarily about what happened to the players of Haringey Borough.
The club has found itself thrust into the spotlight, but the club has used this wisely, with chairman Aki Achillea being very clear that his team was left with little alternative but to take a stand, whilst also expressing sympathy for Yeovil. He and his staff have been a credit to their club over the last couple of days or so, and the reputation of Haringey Borough will have been greatly enhanced by their reaction to events. There has been no hysteria and no jabbing fingers around, only a determined insistence that their players will not tolerate being subjected to this sort of behaviour by supporters.
At this point in time, nobody knows what will happen with regard to the match. Yeovil were leading at the time of the departure, but it is likely that either Yeovil will be expelled from the competition or a replay will be ordered. This is without precedent in the history of the competition, but it somehow feels as thought it may well not be the last. For a team to draw that line in the sand, and for the largely encouraging reaction they have received for doing so, may well mark a watershed moment in the handling of racism within football grounds in this country.
No matter how you quantify that this sort of thing is on the rise, of course, there will be someone along within thirty seconds trying to debunk it. But Coles Park wasn’t the only venue that saw this sort of trouble over the weekend. Bristol City supporters were reported to have been singing racist songs at Luton Town, whilst it was also been reported that Alfredo Morelos was racially abused after scoring an equalising goal for Rangers at Hearts earlier today. None of this is to say that football crowds are wasps nests of racism, of course, but there has been a clear shift in, as the media keeps telling us, the emboldment of the racists over the last three years, to say the least.
Perhaps in Sofia last Monday night, the push back began in earnest. Perhaps the feeling of being on the receiving end of racism had, for some (or perhaps many), felt like something that only happens to other people until it happened to England players in such an egregious way that it could be overlooked here no longer. Football in this country used to ignore racism. Then it paid lip service to it whilst nothing actually happened of significance on a practical level. Last weekend, a team took matters into their own hands and chose to wrestle the narrative from the racists on their own terms. It’s long overdue, and a lesson from which a lot of other players will hopefully have taken considerable encouragement and heart.
It should go without saying that no player should ever have to go through what England’s players did in Sofia last week, or that Haringey Borough’s players did last Saturday. We talk a lot about having a ‘zero tolerance’ attitude towards racism in this country, but we’ve never really walked that walk. The message to come from what happened at Coles Park last Saturday is that players can walk away from racist abuse. They have no obligation whatsoever to work under such conditions. For the rest of us, the message is similarly clear. Challenge it or report it when you see it. Call it out. Remove that emboldened feeling. Acknowledgement of the scale of the problem is a start, but it should only mark the beginning of a process of changing something that ought to have been eradicated decades ago.