Football United – racism in football

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Football United

Adam Gold explains how, more than just speaking out against racism in the game, PFFC can lead the way in associating football with ethnic solidarity, in an article written in 2005

It’s not hard, in an inclusive and internationalist outfit like Philosophy Football, to see racism as an appalling aspect of football’s DNA. And PFFC is also the kind of place where speaking out against racism in the game is applauded. We are part of what’s possibly the biggest cultural unifier on the planet – football, arguably, connects more people than any other global phenomenon, even Hollywood, hip-hop, Irish pubs, pizza or jeans. Which is why it’s so important that that DNA evolves to leave racism facing extinction.

The power to spread cultural change through football is evident. Imagine the 1966 England team that won the World Cup containing five or six non-white players, as today’s team often does. Would the reaction of the crowd have been the same as today? Would the country as a whole have felt the same? Things have come a long way. And if the team you support, watch or play for has a good mix of players, you’re less likely to be prejudiced. How many opinions were changed in the 1980s with a line such as: “But what about that John Barnes, he’s all right isn’t he?”

Thierry Henry poses for Show Racism the Ted CardThere’s still clearly a lot that can be done to further marginalise racism. But if football can influence society, then Philosophy Football can influence football. Playing international anti-fascist tournaments and getting press coverage conveys a message to the rest of football that more than even standing up against racist attitudes when they appear, football as a force can stand for anti-racism. The association of such a powerful presence in people’s lives with total rejection of racism would give football a very different role in society. It’s a game, an interest, an industry – but more than that, football could become an identity. Movements such as Thierry Henry’s Stand Up Speak Up campaign, for example, bind football with racial harmony. Young fans and players wearing the black and white wristbands identify themselves with a progressive attitude, a rebellion against past and less tolerant generations and being part of a ‘club’ that doesn’t reject on the grounds of ethnic background.

This feeling of identifying with others is massively important, going by current psychological thinking on the subject. Racist feelings have their roots in fear of the ‘other’. Jean-Christophe Rutin, vice president of Medicins sans Frontières, recently studied individuals convicted of racist acts in Corsica, and claimed they shared common characteristics, such as ‘a lack of bearings, a rootlessness, a loss of identity, a sense of social frustration and failure, a disintegrated family’. The only way they could define themselves was not by who they were, but by who they felt they weren’t.

For those shouting racist abuse from the sidelines or at opponents, this would appear to be true. And developing a sense of inclusiveness within football can only improve things. It would be less likely that fans would throw banana skins at England players in the Bernabeu, as happened recently, if they’d grown up feeling that, whether black or white, you’re the same kind of person because you’re into football. It’s organisations like PFFC – which are disgusted by this kind of thing, condemn it and speak up against it – that can lead by example in being proactive against racism. We have a multiethnic, international squad, play matches and tournaments highlighting issues of tolerance, and even wear slogans expressing our attitude.

If we hear racist comments or see incidents on the pitch, it’s teams like ours that are likely to make the point that this is unacceptable. Even a slip of the tongue shows a rancid underlying intolerance, as Big Ron Atkinson or Luis Aragones have proved. It’s not good enough that we’re several years into the millennium and top figures in the game are still making abusive statements about someone whose ancestors happened to live somewhere a bit sunnier than theirs. There’s a good chance that, if you’re reading this, you’re passionate about the game of football. You’ll shout at referees and opponents, you’ll feel glory or indignation, you’ll be in the heat of the moment. But why on earth bring someone’s ethnicity into it? The Welsh-born comedian and actor Paul Whitehouse, a Tottenham fan, makes this point from his experience: “At the Worthington Cup Final, when there was trouble on the pitch, with Robbie Savage involved, there was this guy behind me yelling: ‘Savage, you cheating, long-haired, gypsy Welsh c***. I had to turn to him and say: ‘Oi mate, less of the Welsh’.”

It’s not just the identity of individuals that can be changed through football. Group identities can radically alter the way they see themselves, just because of a full-time result. Take what happened after France won the World Cup in 1998. Jacques Chirac praised the national coach Aime Jacquet for resisting National Front pressure to exclude recent immigrants from the French team. “M. Jacquet incarnates all that is best in France: its seriousness, its humanity, its determination to be close to the people … and its tolerance,” Chirac said. “This victory shows solidarity and cohesion. It shows that France has a soul or is searching for one. I hope that after the fiesta we will keep something strong from this national feeling. This tricolour and multi-colour team has given a beautiful image of France and its humanity.”

Now this may look like making political capital out of a popular event, but after the victory over Brazil the National Front dropped its call to ban players of foreign extraction, and Zinedine Zidane – the son of a poor Algerian labourer – became a national hero. Discussing the success of the team, centre-back Frank Leboeuf explained: “There exists the notion of a clan where, if you forget altruism, you’ve lost everything.”

All this is easy to say, but in practice it’s clear the game needs to keep evolving. The Professional Footballers’ Association in this country claimed that in 2004, 22 per cent of all players were black. But what is the number of black coaches or managers out of the 276 positions available? Six. Of the 20 Premiership chairmen, only Mohamed Al Fayed isn’t white. In the Football League, Firoz Kassam and Sam Hammam are the only two out of 72 chairman to be from ethnic minorities. The Football Association, Premier League and Football League don’t employ any men from diverse backgrounds in senior positions. It’s all very well for these clubs and large bodies to say they’re against racism, sign up to the Kick It Out campaign and talk a good game, but showing they don’t discriminate by colour or creed is more important.

Former Luton Town manager Ricky Hill says: “We’re the generation which fought prejudice as players. I went to Burnley at 17 and the whole crowd was booing and making monkey noises. I never let it put me off my game; I scored the winning goal, and you could have heard a pin drop. At Newcastle, the black players had to walk out with our shirts over our faces because there was so much spit coming our way. It was as bad in the south: I had it at Brighton, in London. We battled that, broke down stereotypes about black players, but now we, the same people, are facing prejudice, however unwitting, as coaches. We’ll prove that wrong too, but we need opportunities. And the years are slipping away; we haven’t got time to wait.”

Ethnic diversity at the top levels of the game will have continued significance in years to come. And footballers actively involved in projects such as Show Racism the Red Card means the next generations have positive role models, and receive an off-the-pitch message that isn’t just bling and Footballers’ Wives. A concerted effort made by all sections of the game, from the top flight of the professional game to grassroots levels of teams such as Philosophy Football FC, improves the chances of a less racist future in football and in society. Evil can only triumph if good men do nothing, so it goes, and that applies to football in all its aspects. As Michel Platini says: “I learned not to be a racist through football -when you made a pass, the only criterion was who was in the best position.”

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