Saturday, 20 October 2012

Football, racism, Hillsborough

Not strictly relevant to proceedings here, but this week in my day job I took a break from writing about books and pop and art and photography and architecture to write about football. Thought you might be interested:

You do wonder if John Terry winced just a little when he heard the Prime Minister's reactions to events in Serbia on Tuesday.
After a post-match brawl and accusations by the England Under 21 players and officials that the team's black players were subject to racist abuse, David Cameron said it was time for UEFA to take tough sanctions: "If we are going to stamp out racism from football, then it is no good giving derisory fines, as have been handed out in the past."
Could he have been talking about Terry? Only last month the Chelsea and one-time England captain was given a four-week ban and fined £220,000 (just over a week's wages) when he was found guilty of racist abuse against QPR defender Anton Ferdinand by the FA. Curious definition of tough, that.
Read one way the recent upsurge of racism marring the beautiful game could be seen as something of a step backwards. After all when Ron Atkinson made a racist comment about the then-Chelsea player Marcel Desailly back in 2004, he was forced to resign from his job as an ITV commentator and it effectively ended his career in the game. Today, Terry is still Chelsea captain and the club's fans still chant his name.
The truth is, though, that in the UK (unlike Eastern Europe) we have come a long way from the days when John Barnes and, north of the Border, Mark Walters were backheeling bananas off the pitch in the 1980s. You'd like to think that Britain in those days was another country.
What the John Terry saga and this week in Serbia show is that the war on racism hasn't ended. But it's also worth remembering that in the same season as Terry's verbal assault on Anton Ferdinand the game came together in support of the Bolton Wanderers player Fabrice Muamba after his heart stopped during a game at White Hart Lane. Football may be a theatre for racist abuse but it has also been one of the vehicles for the acceptance and adulation of young black men in British society. Football and pop music remain the areas most welcoming to ethnic minorities.
And yet it's been common in the last few months to use the success of this summer's Olympics as a weapon to beat football with. Look at these players, commentators say, who are paid millions; a reward that comes for their time-wasting cynicism, their lack of Olympian spirit and their petty tribalism that leads – at worst – to the crass, baleful ugliness of Terry's comments.
But it's a false dichotomy, one that overlooks the motes in the international Olympic Committe's eye – the claims of corruption and the ongoing battle against drug users – and, more importantly divorces both sporting events from the cultures they belong to.
There was another big football story this week. If you wanted to quantify them, I suspect it's the more important one; the announcement by the Attorney General Dominic Grieve on Tuesday that he would apply to have the original inquest verdicts of accidental death recorded for the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough in April 1989.
The disgrace of Hillsborough is not football's disgrace. It's the nation's. It's the disgrace of the South Yorkshire Police who were not up to the job that day and then tried to cover up their inadequacies, it's the disgrace of the emergency services, the football authorities and, yes, the Government of the time and those that followed (until David Cameron's). It's the disgrace of Kelvin McKenzie for the lies he told in the Sun newspaper and for the two-decade long defence he made of those lies. It's the disgrace of a country that preferred to believe the worst of people for far too long.
Racism comes from a ludicrous, ill-educated and frankly nasty belief in other peoples' inferiority. The story of Hillsborough is not so very different.
This week's racist abuse is ugly and nasty and needs to be tackled. But, thankfully, no-one died. And no-one's reputation was then traduced and dragged through the dirt for more than 20 years.
Football has questions to answer. But not as many as some others.