Racism and English Football

NB: In this post I am only referring to the male-side of sports, due to my ignorance of the female-side of sports (which warrants the need for a separate post on sexism in sport as well). Also when I refer to “black” I am essentially referring to this in its political meaning e.g. African, Asian, Arab and Caribbean descent.

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Over the past 12 months racism has reared its ugly head back into football. Not that it was ever gone, but high-profile cases including John Terry and Luis Suarez appear to have shone a light on this persistent problem.

It’s not like the bad old days of black players having bananas thrown at them, but that’s all the more reason to stamp out any signs of racism re-emerging. HOWEVER, this is also a useful opportunity to discuss racism in English sports more generally, as there still appears to be a snobbish attitude among many elites that football is full of thuggish bigots, as opposed to other sports.

Personally, I think that’s a load of rubbish. In fact I’d go further and say, with the possible exception (ish) of boxing, football is the only sport in England seriously contributing to the elimination of prejudice in this country. Why such a bold statement? Let’s do some comparisons:

Rugby

Of the 30 players that make up the “elite” national team, three are black.

Tennis

Of the top ranked 20 British tennis players from 2012 – a grand total of zero were black

Golf

A sport which has never had a particularly good reputation for cultural respect (lest the elite forget). In the 2012 Open Championship, 21 English golfers participated – you guessed it, all were white.

Cricket

The 19 players picked for the Australia tour this year (2013) contains…….one black player. Even I was slightly surprised by this

And now back to football. Of the 26 squad players for the national team this year 12 are black, almost half the squad.

Of course when we look to the internal teams, this proportionality becomes even more stark. As a life-long Gooner, I remember games where, in the starting eleven Arsenal squad, ten different nationalities were represented. The English premier league is a hub for players of all races and nationalities across the globe. You only need to watch the rugby or cricket on a Saturday afternoon, then compare it with Match of the Day in the evening, to see how truly diverse football is compared to other sports in England. I’ll never forget most of my time as a youngster in Highbury, with 40 thousand Arsenal fans all singing songs such as for the captain Patrick Vieira (to the tune of Volare):

“He comes from Senegal, and he plays for Arsenal”.

It’s almost impossible now to support an English club and be racist at the same time, despite how some people try. This is mainly because you’ll be hard pushed to find one professional English football team that doesn’t have at least one black player. When you’re talking about the higher teams, you’ll struggle to find one that doesn’t have players from abroad in the squad.

Let’s do some more maths. Football is by far and away the biggest mobiliser of people on a regular basis in this country. The top two leagues (Premiership and Championship) alone contain 44 teams, who I would estimate mobilise at bare minimum 10 thousand fans per week. So the ultra conservative estimate, of just the top two leagues, is a mobilisation of just shy of half a million people. The real figure will be far larger.

And yet despite this, the terraces still remain overwhelmingly white. I couldn’t say for sure why this is, but even a culturally diverse town like Croydon, out of the 15 thousand-odd who turn out to see Crystal Palace play, I’d estimate 2% at most will be black. I’d say this is broadly true for most clubs.

This is not to deny that there are problems with racism in English football, far from it. But it seems all too easy for snobs to write off the fans as bigoted “Chavs” when other more middle class sports don’t even have a racial diversity to speak of in the first place. It’s a classic case of middle class NIMBY-ism, Not In My Back Yard. Upper class people will be quick to deplore white working class “lout-ishness” whilst their own sports stay as white as a WWII Aryan propaganda poster.

The overwhelming problem with racism in football is the corrupt elites who run the structures of football like dinosaurs. Their refusal to deal with racism seriously is nothing short of scandalous. The recent scandal of the U21 England v Serbia game was a case in point – where English players suffering racial abuse were punished for their reactions, whilst the Serbian team got a slap on the wrist. Let’s also not forget that football racism in other European countries is far, far worse than it is here.

Racism is still a huge problem in this country – it’s not of the white sheets and burning crosses type, its more of the smiley faced “mascot” racism that Malcolm X so eloquently portrayed in his autobiography. There are still old-school fascist elements in small football firms in England, but they are dwindling despite the boost they got from the EDL. What is far more concerning is the invisible racial barrier that is still excluding black people from other sports in this country. It’s this that the media and politicians should be screaming about………

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