By Suresh Nair
FOOTBALL always remains the world’s No 1 sport. No other activity, be it cultural or political, commands the emotion, passion and allegiance, certainly of men and women, in the same way.
Football is the cultural lingua franca of Asian, African and European men yet it is the serious fault line of racism in most parts of the world.
That football is the popular crucible of race means that it reflects the tensions and prejudices in wider society from Croatia to China, England to Egypt and Senegal to even Singapore.
The academics have said football has the capacity to exacerbate those tensions or ameliorate them. In Spain, it exacerbates them; in England, it probably ameliorates them. But that could so easily change.
Some may say, over a century ago, it was no different from Spain to England, where racism remains deeply entrenched in football. Goalkeeper Arthur Wharton became the world’s first professional black footballer when he signed for Rotherham in 1889. He played a paltry six games for seven clubs over 16 years.
Over the following 70 years, only a handful of black players succeeded even in the most popular English Premier League (EPL).
I reckon the growing xenophobia and anti-immigrant feeling on the rise in most European countries, including Britain, fuels the sensitive troubled spots.
Even Sol Campbell, one of four black men to captain England, knows it’s easier to say black or white as it’s a global complex character. He was one of the greatest defenders of his era, and one of the most taunted.
Campbell recalls his problems at Tottenham Hotspur began early and went way beyond the fans. A serious and disciplined young man, he signed youth forms at 15, in 1989, and made his debut three years later. He was still only 18, but he believes he should have been selected earlier.
“I could have started playing professional at 16, 17 quite easily. For my position, I was far better than a lot of people around me. All the people in front of me had was experience but, talent-wise, I easily could get in.”
TALKING ABOUT RACISM
John Barnes, one of Liverpool’s greatest strikers who played for England, says “it’s good that people are talking about racism now…but it’s how they’re talking”. He says: “The biggest thing for me is the hypocrisy of the people who were around 10 or 15 years ago when this was going on (in England).
“Why weren’t they saying anything then? Is it just politically correct to be doing it now?”.
As Barnes implies, the racism at football matches was virtually never written about in the newspapers, either on the front or back pages. For its part, even the BBC used to turn down the sound feed so the listeners could not hear the monkey chanting, and the commentators and pundits almost never mentioned it.
Manchester City’s African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure says: “We are all humans. It is not a nice feeling to go and play a football match – to bring joy to the people – and to be called a monkey or to hear monkey noises. I don’t look like a monkey. That’s what disappoints me so much.”
I can reveal, probably for the first time, that even in Singapore, the FAS (Football Association of Singapore) encountered racism when a senior national player, who wants to remain anonymous, privately moaned that majority in the team deliberately didn’t pass him the ball because he was of a particular race. I raised it discreetly with the FAS management and they were rather embarrassed to make it a public issue, which I understand because of the ultra-sensitivity of the matter.
But FIFA (the world-controlling football body) now intends to slam hardest with referees given the power to stop or abandon World Cup matches in Russia 2018 if discriminatory incidents take place, says FIFA president Gianni Infantino.
It is part of a “three-step procedure” that gives officials the power to stop, suspend and call off fixtures over fan behaviour. It was experimented with satisfactory results at the recent FIFA Confederations Cup.
Infantino said anti-discrimination measures were a “high priority” for football’s world governing body. He warns: “We will be very, very firm. We can expect fair play in Russia. We’ll make sure that no incidents will happen.”
The trials at the FIFA Confederations Cup included deploying anti-discrimination observers – a continuation of the monitoring system put in place for 2018 World Cup qualifiers and selected friendlies. The observers were co-ordinated and trained by the Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) network, reporting incidents to FIFA’s disciplinary committee for review and potential action, though no games were affected.
FIFA is adamant because it has previously called the level of racism in the Russian game “completely unacceptable” and players including Brazil and former Zenit St Petersburg striker Hulk have voiced concerns over racism at Russian games.
BIG BARRIERS IN ENGLAND, TOO
Even in the “Home of Football”, coaches from black and ethnic minority backgrounds still face “institutionally embedded barriers”, according to a sports think tank: The Sports People’s Think Tank’s (SPTT).
It notes that just 22 of the 482 senior coaching roles in English football’s top four divisions are held by the ethnic minority candidates. To date, they bring the number of black or ethnic minority managers in the 92 professional clubs to five – along with Carlisle’s Keith Curle and Nuno Espirito Santo at Wolves. Brighton’s Chris Hughton is the only exception in the EPL.
Samuel Eto’o, from Cameroon, has been the target of much racist abuse. To his credit, he has not remained silent, even though, in this climate of denial, black players are risking their own prospects by speaking out. After he scored in a match against Real Zaragoza, the crowd started to monkey chant; Eto’o responded by imitating a monkey!
“People paid for their tickets to see a monkey and so I did it. Each time this happens then I will do it.” A relatively recent arrival in Spain, Eto’o adds: “I thought the racist chanting was just a fad, but it seems to be becoming more widespread and more vitriolic.”
Asked if a black referee could ever take charge of a Primera Liga game, he said: “If one arrived here, then they (the Spanish fans) would kill him!”
In reply to a question about what might be done to combat racism, Eto’o puts it bluntly: “It is the journalists and the white players who can send the strongest messages.”
Sad indeed that football remains the fault line of racism in Europe and the world over.
“It has to start from the very top and I’m glad FIFA is advocating a very strong stand at World Cup 2018 in Russia, with a track record of racism,” says Singapore’s award-winning former national coach Jita Singh. “In my view, from Parliament, the media and everyone in this lovable sport must use the channels, constrains and seek to deny these prejudices.”
End of the day, in my opinion, the bullet stops at your door-step. We must all do better, remembering that these men are human beings, and the fact that they are very well-paid for being very good at sport is not an excuse to let insults go unchecked.
Sulley Muntari is not the first Serie A star to suffer in this manner, but the sad truth is that those tasked with making a difference have done almost nothing to ensure that he is even close to being the last.
Perhaps former Manchester United defender Patrice Evra’s words reveals the deepest truths as he fears racism will never be beaten.
He was a victim of the globally famous Luis Suarez’s racist comments at Anfield and says: “I don’t think we will stop the racism. FIFA have to do something because every year we hear something about racism. I am sad even to have to talk about it.”