Wilfried Zaha Promises to Stand Tall

by | Mar 2, 2021

Irony is one of the English language’s most misused words. But Crystal Palace talisman Wilfred Zaha’s recently-declared desire to stay on his feet on football fields is true irony, as countless defenders could testify, having been near Zaha when he decided NOT to stay on his feet on those fields.

Zaha will no longer “take the knee” before matches, the gesture which undeniably focuses attention on race discrimination within football. His decision is based on genuine consideration of the issues. But he repeats the tactical error made by Brentford with their “statement from the dressing-room” on 13th February, giving up on the publicity generated by the gesture because, by itself, after six months, it hasn’t ended centuries of unequal treatment of the races.

Brentford’s top-scorer, Ivan Toney, emerged from this team-mates’ collective effort to vocalise this error on 19th February: “We have been taking the knee for however long and still nothing has changed,” he told Sky Football, his dictionary clearly missing the page with the word ‘gesture.’ “We are kind of being used as puppets,” he said, more perceptively. “Take the knee and the people at the top can rest for a while,” he added, before calling the gesture “pretty silly and pretty pointless”, thereby giving the “people at the top” another rest.

That day, an almost-equally confused Bournemouth also announced their decision to stop pre-match kneeling as the gesture had “run its course.” They also claimed that it was “no longer having the effect it first did eight months ago,” which implied that it did have an effect eight months ago, contradicting the “pretty silly/pointless” brigade.

And on the same busy day, Zaha used the on-line ‘Financial Times Business of Football Summit’ to publicise his decision, having already broached the issue in a lengthy, enjoyable and insightful interview, posted on You Tube on 10th February, on the “On the Judy” podcast. This fascinating forum self-advertises as offering “an open and honest platform where the players come and talk their truth” to Arafat Kabuye, aka “Y.T.,” who self-advertises wonderfully as “The ‘Hood’s Piers Morgan” (and, unless I have namesakes confused, plays for my home town club, Chessington & Hook United, which I only discovered AFTER my glowing review of the podcast…honest).

Zaha talked these truths: “People constantly want me to do ‘Black Lives Matter’ talks and racial talks. And I’m not doing it so you can put ‘Zaha spoke for us.’ Unless things change, I’m not coming to chat to you just for the sake of it. In interviews, I’m like, why do we just get a month for celebrating black people? Why am I kneeling down to show you that black people matter? Why am I wearing ‘Black Lives Matter’ to show you that we matter? This is all degrading stuff. All these charades mean nothing. Don’t tell me to come and chat about stuff that’s not going to change. Change it.”

At the summit, Zaha expanded on these issues. As well as not kneeling, he wouldn’t “wear Black Lives Matter on the back of my shirt because it feels like it’s a target.” He complained that “people forget we have to do it. It is becoming something we just do.” And he revealed that when he was growing up his parents told him “I should be proud to be black no matter what. We should just stand tall.”

Yet his messages were mixed: “I’m not really an activist,” he explained, perhaps un-necessarily. “But if I’ve got a platform to try and make a change, why not? I don’t see why I would not say anything on something that means a lot to me and to other people. I feel like I have a duty to do what I can.” Apart from bringing the campaign for racial equality into millions of homes worldwide by kneeling down for four seconds in front of TV cameras at Palace games, it seems. That is “not enough for me,” he stated. And, admittedly, in the photo of him kneeling before Palace hosted Sheffield United on 2nd January, he DOES look ‘unfulfilled.” Well…bored.

Yet I see his point. And his views echo QPR director of football Les Ferdinand, himself no stranger to racist abuse. Even in his current role, “from my own supporters here,” Ferdinand told the London Evening Standard newspaper’s James Olley 13 months ago. In September, a disillusioned Ferdinand announced his decision “not to do any more interviews on racism in football because the debate was going round in circles.” He damned taking he knee as having become “good PR” and “not dissimilar to a fancy hashtag or a nice pin badge.” Meanwhile, he concluded, “the message has been lost.”

Neither Zaha nor Toney used the words. But you sense that they now view taking the knee as tokenism and/or virtue-signalling. And “it can’t be a token gesture,” as QPR’s manager Mark Warburton recently stressed, correctly. So, opposition to it has grown in recent months. TV ratings for the Football League (EFL), and thus the gesture’s impact, is much smaller. So EFL players are more likely to feel that no-one is listening OR looking. And with EFL clubs not making it compulsory, not kneeling is easier.

This compulsion is unsurprisingly an issue, given that “don’t tell me what to do” and “don’t tell me what to think,” are two key ‘personal freedoms’ in modern Britain. And not unreasonably so when players are abused for NOT talking the knee, even when they are not compelled to. For instance, Nottingham Forest forward Lyle Taylor, who told London radio station LBC: “I’ve been racially abused by black people. When I said I’m not taking the knee, I was branded racist, branded an Uncle Tom.” And he claimed that if white players refused to kneel they’d be “ branded racist.”

Other players have had softer experiences. In December, Norwich City’s Christoph Zimmermann decided to “respectfully stand” while his colleagues knelt, and further decided not to make any great public fuss about it. An article in local media outlet the Pink ‘Un promised via headline to tell us why he “isn’t taking the knee.” But it didn’t. “Probably so he doesn’t get injured,” suggested one irreverent Canaries fan, as Zimmermann missed the early weeks of last season with a knee problem.

The continuing association of the gesture with ‘BLM’ has given its opponents an on-going opportunity to discredit it. After first refusing to kneel, in January, Taylor told BBC Radio Nottingham: “My support for what we’re trying to achieve is absolute. But I do not support Black Lives Matter as an institution or organisation.” Now, BLM is an overtly political group in the US. Lefties, too. And Taylor is wrong to conflate the taking of a knee with them, which the research he carried out into BLM (and encouraged others to) should have made clear. But when ‘BLM’ banners are draped across grounds, you cannot blame players for making the link, however false.

Britain doesn’t lack empirical evidence of the futility of gesture alone. Millions clapped for the NHS at the height of lockdown last Spring. But, in a phrase oft-quoted by my Irish relatives, “God bless you doesn’t pay the bills.” They focussed attention on vital healthcare work. But without appropriate remuneration for the NHS ‘heroes,’ the claps were empty gestures. Likewise, taking the knee without taking appropriate action against racists (although a Venn diagram of those now opposing taking the knee and those lambasting people for not clapping would be…interesting).

Zaha and Toney both recognised this. “The punishments need to be stronger. You can only do so much and you have to get that helping hand,.” Toney told Sky. And in the “On The Judy” interview, Zaha and YT struck an appropriately ridiculing tone(DTL).

Focussing on ‘BLM’ also diverts attention from a key issue. Two players recently racially abused were white, Irishmen James McClean and Shane Duffy. Yet their union, the Professional Football Association, labels this abuse “sectarian.” Instead, the responsibility falls to the victims, such as when fellow Irishman Neil Lennon shamed an entire Scottish football press pack into silence on the subject in 2018: “you call it sectarianism here in Scotland, I call it racism”. There is, of course, yet more irony in anti-Irish racism. Many of these racist abusers vocally complain that “you don’t hear about racism against white people.” They should, literally, listen to themselves.

If Zaha wants to “stand tall,” I would, to use his own words, say “why not?” But though Leroy Rosenior, Show Racism the Red Card vice-president, recognised that “some people say (taking the knee) has run out of steam,” he insisted: “Even if it has lost its initial impact, it keeps (anti-racism) at the forefront of people’s minds. We cannot take our eyes off the ball” Millions saw the gesture again this weekend, and heard commentators explain the cause. Those who stop kneeling, while claiming support for that cause, must show how they intend to keep those millions and millions of eyes on that ball.