English football's racism problem is being cynically hijacked by the media's political agendas
Racism reared its ugly head in English football again last weekend when Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger was allegedly subjected to monkey chants from Tottenham fans during a Premier League encounter.
The Rudiger incident led to an unwanted first in English football as a stadium announcement warned the crowd three times that “racism is interfering with the game.”
Rudiger’s claims are being investigated, although police did confirm a Chelsea fan was arrested at the same game after racially abusing Tottenham’s South Korean forward Son Heung-min.Also on rt.com Tottenham probe into alleged racist abuse against Rudiger ‘inconclusive’ as club scours footage and deploys lip readers
For English football it comes at the end of a year in which – among various incidents – Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling was racially abused during a game at Chelsea, and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba received racist abuse online.
On foreign shores, Italy has made the headlines time and again for racist abuse toward black players, including Mario Balotelli, Kalidou Koulibaly and Romelu Lukaku, while over in the French league, games have been halted temporarily due to racist and homophobic abuse.
But it is in England, motherland of the Beautiful Game, where these incidents have induced the biggest paroxysm of moral self-doubt.
That in itself would not be a bad thing, were it not for the increasingly contrived and distorted nature that the racism discussion has taken on among the football media.
Take the latest incident involving Rudiger, after which we have again seen suggestions that football as a whole must offer itself up for martyrdom for society's ills, chastising itself en masse for the actions of a few idiots every week.
A recent Guardian article offered an example, all wrapped up in party politics, arguing: “[football] has a duty to police racism within its own boundaries but this divisiveness comes directly from elected politicians.”
Tacking party politcial grievances onto the debate is something player-turned-pundit Gary Neville again did after the Chelsea-Tottenham game.
“We’ve just had a general election in this country where both main parties, and the leaders of both main parties, are accused, constantly over the last month, of fueling racism and accepting racism within their parties,” Neville opined.
“If it’s accepted in the highest office in the country, we’re not talking about it at a micro level, we are talking about it at the highest office in the country.”
Neville was subsequently hailed – not for the first time – as the patron saint of English football’s anti-racism campaign.
His Sky Sports colleague David Jones, meanwhile, was crucified for "shutting Neville down" at the end of his monologue by saying that “they are the views of Gary Neville and not those of Sky Sports.”
Jones subsequently apologized “unreservedly” amid an online backlash, stoked by many who seemed oblivious to the irony that they were (supposedly) preaching equality and inclusivity while spewing vitriol at a man simply trying to do his job.
According to the narrative being pedaled, Britain is broken (largely because of Brexit), and because football and its fans are so finely-tuned to the political state of play, they have decided to start hurling racist abuse more and more.
Reading the commetary, it’s almost as if racism never existed in English football pre-Brexit or pre-Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn; it’s as if traveling English fans never made Nazi salutes or insulting chants; it’s as if, on the pitch, we never had high-profile cases such as then-England captain John Terry being fined and banned for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, nor Luis Suarez sanctioned for abusing Patrice Evra (just to highlight a few examples).
Noting the racism of the past is not justification for it in the present, but it does provide the context that football is not so tethered to the current state of party politics and social issues.
Football, of course, does not exist in a complete vacuum, but does the average football fan really wake up in the morning, listen to accusations about Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn and think they have the green light to make monkey chants at footballers? Do they see the Brexit vote as their cue to hurl vile abuse at any foreigner on England’s football fields?
Of course not.
More likely, racist football fans have and will continue to make their vile chants whatever the political weather.Also on rt.com A storm as big as a hurricane has been provoked by rapper Stormzy. But IS Britain 100% racist?
And yet it's hard to recall anything like the current self-flagellation we have seen in the English press, nor the fears that the country is being propelled back 30 years in its battle to expel racism from the terraces.
One suspects that, in reality, most of the media propagating the idea of political and social factors being behind football’s recent racism incidents have an axe to grind about Brexit or their own political grievances.
Step back, and perhaps what’s really happening is that players feel more emboldened and empowered to stand up to abuse, rather than put up with it. Premier League teams are more ethnically diverse now than ever before, which should lead to solidarity among and between teams. Perhaps a team deciding to walk off the pitch, as players would be well within their rights to do, would send the clearest and most powerful message of all.
Rudiger was firm in his actions last weekend, speaking to Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta to report the abuse he believed he had heard before protocols were initiated.
Rudiger issued a message on social media afterwards, one section of which read: “I don't want to involve Tottenham as an entire club into this situation as I know that just a couple of idiots were the offenders.”
I don't want to involve Tottenham as an entire club into this situation as I know that just a couple of idiots were the offenders. I got a lot of supportive messages on social media from Spurs fans as well in the last hours - thank you a lot for this. (2/4)— Antonio Rüdiger (@ToniRuediger) December 22, 2019
In Rudiger’s words, “a couple of idiots were the offenders” – although many in the English football media have again prostrated the whole of the sport before the altar, readily couching the issue in a broader political context.
This is not to be flippant about what is a very serious issue. Footballers have a right to work in an environment free of racism and abuse, and even one monkey chant or homophobic slur is one too many. The tribal nature of the game and passions it stirs are no excuse for fans to step beyond boundaries in a way that would not be tolerated elsewhere.
But while racism has no place in football, neither does distorting the anti-racism cause for the benefit of your own cynical political agendas.
By Liam Tyler