James Carson, Sports Editor.
It’s a stain on the beautiful game which has never quite been fully expunged, a blight football is yet to fully escape. Football has never been a game conducive to change, the progress made to bring technology to the game and decorum to the terraces were only achieved through years of fighting. But the issue which this global game has remarkably struggled to address is that of racism within the game. Indeed, as this awkward topic once again rears its head, it really begs the question of why football has such a troubled relationship with the subject of race.
For one, the utterance of racism in football evokes thoughts of the sole hotspot where FIFA and UEFA are woefully inept to address the issue of race. It should come as little surprise that it is none other than the nation currently preparing to host the biggest spectacle in football. Of course, I’m alluding to Russia, a long-term hotbed of hooliganism and racist behaviour; a slightly unorthodox prerequisite to host the World Cup.
It’s a disturbingly frequent occurrence to hear news of the latest stadium bans which face Russian outfits in domestic and European competition: be it the partial stadium ban levied against Torpedo Moscow in 2014, or the requirement to play matches behind closed doors punishment for CSKA Moscow in 2013. It should come as little surprise that this culture is so engrained in Russian football that the largest supporters group of Zenit St Petersburg, the Landskrona published a manifesto declaring “we are not racists, but we see the absence of black players at Zenit as an important tradition.” Whilst the club board and primary sponsor Gazprom sought to distance themselves from these urges, the sale of star players Hulk and Axel Witsel both of ethnic decent can easily be interpreted as dignifying this request.
But what concerns me most about the state of football in a nation soon to host the World Cup, is that this behaviour is not confined to the supporters alone. Indeed, this mind has infiltrated the mind of Russian players as was painfully exhibited in Liverpool’s home UEFA youth league tie against Spartak Moscow where seventeen-year-old Rhian Brewster was subject to racist abuse from a Spartak defender. The player was purported to have approached Brewster following a foul and said: ”suck my d**k, you ni**er, you ne*ro.” Whilst the complaint remains under investigation, the fact that this conduct has got remotely close to the pitch is cause for concern.
What is so disturbing about Brewster’s case is that is not confined to Eastern Europe, but has bled through to Western Europe where facing this abuse occurs at an uncomfortable frequency. The fact this isn’t a first for a player aged only seventeen is troubling, having faced abuse during this summer’s European Under-17 Championship in Croatia. The fact this player isn’t being judged for his clear talent on the pitch, but on his ethnic origin is unacceptable. But the courage Brewster has shown follows the example set in Italy by Mario Balotelli, Kevin Prince-Boateng and most recently Blaise Matuidi who despite monkey chants and racist taunts conducted themselves with dignity and courage.
But what is so disconcerting is the backward steps that the British game has taken towards this disgraceful conduct. The allegations emerging against former Chelsea youth team coaches Graham Rix and Gwyn Williams of leading a racist culture with former Welsh international Nathan Blake claiming every other word from the coaches was “c*on or ni**er.” Whilst this perhaps is attributable to a different society not quite able of grasping the sensitivities surrounding race, but we’ve surely advanced beyond this point? We’re capable of treating those who play the game with the respect they deserve yet it’s unclear why coaches still struggle to perform their roles without resorting to racial epithets. The saga surrounding former England women’s manager Mark Sampson and his discourse with Eniola Aluko and Drew Spence embodies the problem which still exists surrounding race in football. With an independent report deeming Sampson in two instances to have mad “ill-judged attempts at humour” which were “discriminatory on the grounds of race” the reputation of football on this issue must be questioned.
Whilst this conduct might be expected from a generation still struggling to fully adapt to what is and isn’t acceptable, but what deeply concerns me is that racism within the English game isn’t isolated to older generations of coaches and supporters. Instead the emerging generation of culturally aware players of late have been increasingly willing to bring racist abuse back into the game. Be it in the FA Cup edition of the Merseyside Derby with allegations against Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino using racist language towards Everton defender Mason Holgate under FA investigation or barely a week later in the Premier League clash between West Brom and Brighton with Baggies striker Jay Rodriguez allegedly using racist abuse towards Brighton’s Gaetan Bong. Regardless of the outcome of these cases, the fact that the game has been tarnished because of these allegations is deeply damaging to a sport in a country which we thought had left this conduct in the past.
We’ve spent a considerable time expressing our outrage at the role at the conduct of the pending World Cup hosts and other hotbeds of racist abuse in recent years, but what is troubling is that the domestic game is beginning to slide back into this unacceptable behaviour. Make no mistake, the English game is an example for how progress can be made to tackle racism as the environment which existed as recently as the 1990’s is a far cry from the current game. But the work which the league must perform to these instances more and more infrequent remains incomplete and a renewed effort to conclusively kick racism out of football is urgently needed.