Hard-pressed to stop racism-related incidents, the English Football Association (FA), in a 92-point action plan released in December, has decided to introduce measures it hopes will help tackle the issue this year.
The plan will be adopted early this year and includes the demand that at least 10% of the entry-level officials and coaches should be from the ethnic minorities. Also, the involvement of women and differently-abled people in all forms of football will be increased, while Asian role models will be sought to encourage Asian children to play the game.
For, as two examples of punishment meted out to John Terry and Luis Suárez for racial slurs on fellow players show, racism still exists in English football—the game there has earned notoriety for being too colour-conscious.
Liverpool’s Suárez was banned for eight games and fined £40,000 (around Rs.35.5 lakh) by an FA independent regulatory commission for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra after a match in October 2011. Chelsea skipper Terry was found guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand during an October 2011 match against Queens Park Rangers and was suspended for four matches and fined £2,20,000 in September 2012—indication that the FA had failed to combat racism.
Nevertheless, two influential former players, Jamaican-born John Barnes and Ruud Gullit, whose father is Surinamese, stopped short of criticizing English football when they spoke at the Doha Goals Forum in November. Considered one of the game’s greatest players, former Holland skipper Gullit, who had stints with Chelsea as player-cum-manager between 1995-98, felt the attacks were related directly to economic disparity. “It happens more when there is unemployment problem or when there is a slump in the economic growth. That’s the case over the years,” explained Gullit.
According to a report, “OECD (2011), Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising”, published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2011, income inequality among working-age persons has risen faster in the UK than in any other OECD country since 1975. The report says the annual average income in the UK of the top 10% in 2008 was just under £55,000, about 12 times higher than that of the bottom 10%, who had an average income of £4,700.
Gullit felt small incidents during the game can still be ignored. “It’s an emotional game. There can be arguments in the field. During the heated discussions, players abuse each other. But that doesn’t mean it’s something to do with your colour. People make it bigger than it actually is,” said the Dutch legend.
Former England World Cup player Barnes said he never had problems when he turned out for Liverpool during a decade-long stint with the club between 1987-97. “It wasn’t difficult for me at all. I agree, it was a difficult time when I played. But again that depends on what’s your perspective on racism and how you deal. People deal differently. Believe me, monkey chanting didn’t affect me at all. How can I let some ignorant people affect me?” he asked.
Not everyone remains unaffected, though. After his brother Anton endured the “humiliation”, Rio Ferdinand refused to wear a “Kick it Out” T-shirt when Manchester United played Stoke City in a warm-up match in October.
On 28 October, it was alleged that referee Mark Clattenburg used “inappropriate language” towards Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel and Juan Mata during the Blues’ 2-3 defeat at home to Manchester United.
A relatively unknown lawyer, Peter Herbert, chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers (SBL), hit the headlines when he made an official complaint against Clattenburg to the Metropolitan Police Service. Herbert, who is behind the plan for a potential black players’ breakaway union, has also accused the FA of being “institutionally racist”.
Recently, Herbert’s SBL took up the case of Leicester Nirvana club for free after the players claimed they were racially abused and subjected to monkey noises during an under-15 fixture against Blaby and Whetstone BC FC on 21 October.
Barnes believes Herbert’s “fight” isn’t so good for football. “It’s unfortunate that some people who were never associated with football in their life are getting involved with football for the wrong reasons. By creating a separate platform for blacks, we’re going to alienate them further. We’ve to look at society before football,” explained the 49-year-old former English international player.
Rio also bore the brunt of a racial slur on Twitter targeted at Ashley Cole, who testified in Terry’s favour. In July, the defender responded to a tweet in which Chelsea’s Cole was described as a “choc ice”. Though Cole’s lawyers didn’t take the matter further, Rio’s words were condemned as “insensitive and untimely” by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). In August, Rio was fined £45,000 for his Twitter remarks after an independent regulatory commission found him guilty of bringing the game into disrepute with an “improper” comment which included “a reference to ethnic origin, colour or race”.
It’s clear that the battle to rid the game of discrimination and racism is far from won. In fact, stray incidents on the pitch seem to suggest that discontent among black players has increased. “We can’t say racism is only a problem in football. Because for 90 minutes you can tell a racist to keep his mouth shut. So did we really believe it has gone away? I don’t think so. We’ve to look at the society. Such hatred stems from the society where we live,” explained Barnes.
PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle said Herbert’s criticisms of the FA and Chelsea were “ill-advised” and “unwelcome”, soon after the Clattenburg incident. “Football players, fans and members belong to the society first. We’re doing it the wrong way around. First, improve the society and then get rid of this evil (racism),” he added.
Both Barnes and Gullit don’t agree with Herbert’s idea of launching a scathing attack on the system. But Gullit did make a sarcastic remark on The Rooney Rule in the National Football League in the US. The Rule was established to ensure that minority coaches, especially African-Americans, were considered for high-level coaching positions. “I don’t want to be accepted as a coach because of my colour, but because I’m good,” said Gullit, who had coached Los Angeles Galaxy and Terek Grozny as head coach in the major league soccer (MLS).
Herbert’s views can be debated but the issue cannot be ignored. There might be moral objections to the holistic notion of solving the issue. But if administrators in England don’t arrive at concrete solutions, this anguished debate will continue to haunt the game.
Aminul Islam is a sports writer based in Doha, Qatar.