Scourge of racism in our game never really went away

Akpo Sodje.
Akpo Sodje.
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From a cold Friday night at Anfield to comments made by FIFA president Sepp Blatter, Suarez to Terry, the subject of racism in football has recently been back in the headlines. Does the sport have a problem in 2012? If so, what more can be done to rid the game of this ugly stain? Adam Shergold reports.

IT WAS a flashback to a dark time football would prefer to forget.

A big occasion before a full house in a large top-flight stadium – an FA Cup tie no less. A young black footballer runs towards the crowd to retrieve the ball.

From the sea of anonymous faces rising above him, he hears what he believes to be racial abuse.

The player, barely into his twenties, flips. Visibly upset, he turns back to the thousands-strong throng, jabbing his finger accusingly but with no hope of knowing who or why.

Shaken and with tears rolling down his face, he has to be comforted for several minutes by players from both sides before he musters the composure to carry on.

The experience of Oldham Athletic’s Tom Adeyemi at Anfield a week ago was an echo of a time barely three decades ago when black footballers starting out in the game had to endure such slurs almost as a rite of passage.

For some, that first experience of nonchalant, indiscriminate racial abuse from the stands left a mental scar so deep they turned their back on the game.

Others bottled it up, seeing it as the price they had to pay to reach the top.

The events in Oldham’s FA Cup third round tie with Liverpool, – coming on the back of recent, headline-grabbing incidents involving John Terry and Luis Suarez – has given football an unwelcome reminder that some things from the past believed extinct have simply not gone away.

As Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport select committee begins an inquiry into the extent of racism in the game, the highest powers – both in football and in society – must once again ask whether it had ever truly disappeared.

“There have been significant improvements since the early days of black footballers in the game,” says Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association.

“We saw a flood of confident black footballers in the 1990s and the game grew more cosmopolitan. And the work of organisations like Kick It Out and Show Racism the Red Card has been instrumental in educating the next generation.

“But as we have seen in society with the case of Stephen Lawrence and the murder of Indian student Anuj Bidve in Manchester over Christmas, racism still exists.

“And on the football field, too, there have been high-profile cases lately. We would like to say we have eradicated it but it would be wrong to say we have.”

It is 30 years now since new Chelsea signing Paul Canoville was called ‘a Golliwog’ by his own fans and nearly as many since Cyrille Regis was sent a bullet through the post when called up for England duty.

It is 24 years since John Barnes back-heeled a banana off the pitch at Goodison Park.

But the testimony of former black professionals ridicules the suggestion that football – and society in general – cleaned up its act between then and now.

Earl Barrett recalls playing a reserve team match in Yorkshire for Manchester City as a 17-year-old hoping to make his mark in the game.

“It was one of my first matches and there were only about a hundred or so people in the ground.

“Every time I touched the ball, there were monkey noises echoing around the stadium. It was made worse by all the empty seats.

“There were even bananas thrown on the pitch. This was just a reserve game, remember.

“At full-time, I didn’t know what to do. The feeling was that if you said anything, you would not be picked again and you would be kicked out the game.

“I was 17 or 18 at the time and felt there was nobody to turn to. I didn’t want to ruin my chances of advancing in the game.”

Barrett went on to play in the top flight for Oldham Athletic, Aston Villa and Everton, and later in his career for both Sheffield clubs.

Akpo Sodje, who spent three years at Sheffield Wednesday, talks about an FA Cup tie at Hartlepool United just six years ago when he was pelted with a banana and subjected to racist chanting as he ran along the touchline.

“I remember it as if it was yesterday,” he says. “There have been a few occasions like this while I’ve been playing in England that have left me quite shocked, very sad and really surprised.”

The former Newcastle United defender Olivier Bernard, who now works as a coach for the Show Racism the Red Card campaign, suggests the problem of racism is more deeply-rooted in society.

“When I travel around the country visiting schools to run coaching sessions, I have been approached by teachers saying ‘which part of Africa are you from?’ I was born in Paris.

“And kids as young as four or five – in the reception class – shouting ‘Black Monkey’ at me.

“In some parts of the country, the level of ignorance is incredible. These kids have never seen a black person before.”

From Eighties to Noughties, it seems the situation has not improved as much as the football hierarchy would have us believe.

If those at the very top deny the problem – FIFA president Sepp Blatter claimed in November that there is no racism on the field of play – what hope of a solution is there?

But there are positives to be taken from the strength of objections when high-profile incidents do occur and also from the default reaction of black players and fans of all creeds today that racist abuse must be flagged up.

Gordon Taylor says: “Following the Suarez case, there was a general outcry in the UK stronger and louder than it would have been elsewhere in the world, or indeed would have been here 20 or 30 years ago.

“The length of time taken by the Football Association over its deliberations, the depth of the 115-page report and the strong sanctions handed down suggested a hardening of resolve.

“There is no use ignoring the issues – players need to grasp the nettle and report it straight away.

“In the past, black players seemed to be reluctant, now it has changed. Adeyemi’s reaction took great courage.”

Barrett agrees: “When I was young, I was almost too embarrassed to tell anyone what had happened. I thought the colour of my skin was a feeble excuse, so I dealt with it myself. Thirty or 40 years ago, abuse from fans was commonplace. If one person in the crowd shouted something, the others would join in.

“Today, anyone who shouts abuse is picked out – fans like that get found out.”

The work of anti-racism organisations such as the Kick It Out campaign has undoubtedly helped the education process by reaching out to new generations in the game.

Danny Lynch, from Kick It Out, says: “A sign of our progress is that now, whenever there’s a racist incident, there is such a furore that the authorities take notice.

“Our aim is that every incident, at every level of the game, is reported to the relevant authorities.

“But more needs to be done to get more black and minority ethnic people into coaching.”

For all the cosmopolitan complexion of the modern football teams, there remains an inescapable dearth of non-white managers in the game – just two in the top four divisions of English football.

Barrett says: “There are many aspiring black managers who have seen the low percentage of managers in professional football and have turned their back on the game.

“There needs to be an incentive for them to work hard towards breaking in to the game. They need to keep knocking at the door.”

The events of the past few months serve to remind us that football has not yet completely absolved itself of racism, but there is now at least an open dialogue to inspire cautious optimism.

Are campaigners and governing bodies doing enough in battle against racism?

NO

Professor Ellis Cashmore

Professor of Culture, Media and Sport at Staffordshire University, an expert on racism in football

I’ve studied football and racism for many, many years and in the last 18 months I’ve been asking supporters whether they’ve experienced racism at matches through an online questionnaire at www.topfan.co.uk.

From the 3,500 fans who have responded so far, 83 per cent say racism is as much a phenomenon now as it was in the Eighties. What the fans are saying is that racism has not gone away – it’s still there, both in the stands and on the field of play.

We have only noticed it of late because of social media like Twitter. You can’t manage social media when people have racist views. They think their views are the right ones and they will have a reasoned argument with you. They’re also willing to share those views with potentially millions of others.

Social media has created a contagion in which people are not afraid to express their opinions. The thoughts that were below the surface are now seen as acceptable and daily reports in the media are spreading the contagion.

Kick It Out has been credited with eliminating racism from British football. In fact, it has been incredibly ineffective.

I’d go as far to say it has been part of the problem by giving the impression that there is no racism in British football. There is a culture of complacency and they have misled us.

Racism has not made a comeback, it has always been there.

I was involved in the meetings when Kick It Out first started in the early Nineties and I questioned what, in practical terms, they were going to do about the problem.

They thought handing out leaflets and running workshops would solve the problem.

There was this childlike naivety about how to approach such a bedevilling, long-standing problem in society as well as football. There was a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem.

Today, black footballers do not stand for racist abuse. In the past, they would have bottled it up and seen it as part of the job.

But these players chose not to speak out. They don’t name the clubs where they received the abuse and I accuse them of contributing to the problem.

With fans, there is also a conspiracy of silence. If you’re in a football crowd and someone shouts a racist remark, what are you going to do about it? Do you confront the offender? Do you talk to the steward? It’s unlikely anything would be done. It’s easier said than done.

We need to start at the top – with UEFA and FIFA – if this issue is to be tackled. But this is problematic – if a fan shouts abuse, you could punish the club.

But really you are punishing the club through no fault of its own.

YES

Lord Ouseley

Chairman of Kick It Out and long-time campaigner against racism in the sport of football

We have achieved a great deal over the past few years in managing and moderating racist behaviour both in the stands and on the pitch.

The number of racist incidents is a lot less now than in the Eighties and Nineties and this is partly because of the work we have done both at professional and grassroots level to kick racially offensive behaviour out of the game.

However, as recent events have shown us, racism has not been eradicated from football and there is a lot more work to be done both on and off the pitch.

In order to achieve this, we need the right leadership, with top players and managers speaking out against racism and we also need effective policies from the authorities, both in football and in Government.

Education is an important part of this process and we work hard to reach the next generation of footballers through our links with schools and local clubs. Through these links, we can build a culture of respect.

We work closely with all 92 Football League clubs as well to get our message across.

The recent high profile cases involving Luis Suarez and John Terry serve to remind us that there is a lot more work to do.

I welcome the strong, positive action taken by the Football Association in the Suarez case.

Football clubs are employers and, in any other walk of life, if there was evidence of racist or abusive behaviour, you would expect the company to deal with it swiftly and decisively.

Liverpool have shown hypocrisy – you can’t wear t-shirts supporting an anti-racism campaign one week and then wear one saying ‘We Support Luis Suarez.’

I thought it was a provocative move to warm-up in those t-shirts.

The FA has stepped in and they must continue to be both thorough and fair in their punishments to prevent a repeat of these incidents.

It is not so much a case of dishing out retribution, but more a need to ensure the players understand this kind of behaviour is not acceptable.

While we now see multi-cultural squads in English football, with players from many different nationalities, we don’t see the same representation in management, with only a handful of black or ethnic minority coaches in the professional game.

But, in part due to our efforts, there are more black coaches coming through and getting their badges.

If we see a mass movement towards this, we can slowly build on it and see a more diverse game.

And it goes far beyond playing and coaching – it applies to administration, the referees, the medical staff, the IT people and everyone else.