Football might not be perfect but it's come a long way since racism in the 1970s
A few years ago I made the mistake of taking a fashionable guide book along on a trip to Spain. Aside from lecturing me on what an injustice it is that Gibraltar remains British, it was scathing about the iniquities of bullfighting. The real spirit of Spain, the true family sport, the guidebook said, was football.The real spirit of Spain, the true family sport, the guidebook said, was football.
So it was interesting shortly afterwards to watch those family-minded Spanish football fans treating black England players to savage racial abuse during a friendly match in Madrid, complete with monkey chants of the crudest kind.
Around the same time, Spain’s national football manager referred to black French player Thierry Henry in vicious terms during a training session, and was as a result subjected to a very minor fine.
Just to show that less than liberal views are not confined to Spain’s football crowds, its motor sport fans blacked up specially to goad British driver Lewis Hamilton at a Formula One race. Apologists explained that in Spain when they make fun of the colour of your skin, it’s not racism, dear me no.
When we read about British footballers levelling complaints of racism against each other, it’s worth making the comparison with what passes as everyday behaviour in a nearby country we are often invited to admire.
It may or may not be that the charges laid by Manchester United’s Patrice Evra against Liverpool’s Luis Suarez are well founded. The same goes for the allegations by Anton Ferdinand of QPR against John Terry of Chelsea – although given Terry’s general level of conduct racial abuse of an opponent would be pretty ordinary stuff.
But the horrid and open abuse of the past is gone. (o rly?) When crowds pick on black players these days it is the exception, and the fact is quickly reported and condemned. Any player who resorts to racial slurs against an opponent or a team-mate risks exposure and humiliation. Every club seems to be promoting a kick racism out of football campaign, beyond the point of boredom.
This is not to deny that it has been a long hard road for black footballers. When I was a child it was a commonplace that black players were talented but lightweight, so sports writers would say the Brazil team of the 1960s were great because they had creative black forwards and steady, dependable, white defenders.
Black players in England had to work against the assumption that they would crack swiftly under pressure, a view that helped them get a particularly rough reception from opposing teams.
When the breakthrough came in the 1970s, and Viv Anderson became the first black footballer to play for England in modern times, the week-in week-out taunting of black players continued. I was a regular at Stoke City watching an able young winger called Garth Crooks, and you would not want to put up with the kind of thing he endured on a regular basis.
Things have changed, and they have changed with the switch of mood at big-time football grounds which means you are now more likely to be assaulted at your local cinema multiplex than at a Premier League match.
I remember the last time I took my elderly mother to watch a game at Highbury before they knocked it down. We took our seats in the East Stand to the sound of typical North London football fan conversation around us: ‘Where’s Lucy today?’ ‘Oh, she couldn’t make it this time, she had to marinate the lamb in rosemary.’
In the second half Arsenal sent on an African forward called Kanu. Kanu could either be brilliant or spend all afternoon falling over the ball. On this occasion he kept falling over the ball. A youngish bloke sitting in front of us lost his temper after one particularly ludicrous pratfall and yelled, at the top of his voice, something about ‘you black b*****d’.
There was a terrible silence.
The bloke leaped up and wheeled round 180 degrees in the same movement, shoved his face straight in front of my mother’s, and said in firm and formal tones: ‘I’m terribly sorry about the racist comment.’
You could not imagine such a thing happening at a football match 30 years ago. Football reflects us all as it always did, and these days it’s both racist and not racist at the same time. Things may not be perfect but, at the end of the day, Gary, there are worse things to complain about.
So, Mr Evra and Mr Ferdinand, I know you feel insulted. But perhaps in this case you could just put up with it and get on with the game.