WE live in extremely troubled times, a confusing era where it often feels as though the lunatics have been handed the keys to the asylum. Powerful leaders that appear to behave like Bond villains, placard-waving crowds baying for blood, the re-emergence of anti-semitism, that most symbolic of prejudices, and bull-necked extremists spouting faux-nationalism and militaristic sentiments. Although we’re more than a decade on from the start of the financial crisis, much of this can possibly be attributed to its after shocks. In truth, we have never truly got over the crisis, but merely patched things up and hoped for the best. Some people are still suffering and they’re unhappy.
What has this got to do with football? Quite a lot, actually, for the game brings the masses together and, if allowed to, can provide an outlet for bad behaviour. It’s no longer the forum for well-choreographed pitched battles, the Football Factory-type warfare that has largely been squeezed out of most matchdays, but it can still be a haven for those that want to disrupt and indoctrinate. It is worth noting that the right-wing extremist, Tommy Robinson, has well-known football hooligans among his followers.
In Britain, Brexit seems to have been the dam-breaker when it comes to giving these people license to abuse and threaten foreigners, religious groups and other segments of society. Scapegoating has become a popular sport, including campaigns against black footballers, homosexuals, Liberals, Jews, Muslims and refugees. Just look at Facebook and the plethora of right-wing sites that have been set-up to spread mostly fake news about illegal immigrants. Social Media can be a wonderful thing, but it has been harnessed to spread vile, divisive agendas. Britain, for one country, has gone backwards over the past three years and Brexit has been the catalyst – proving, once and for all, that if you allow human beings to be obnoxious, they will take the baton and run with it. The United Kingdom is no longer an easy-going nation – there is a vague sense of menace about the shift that has taken place in recent years.
The remarkable ease of this happening shows bigotry and prejudice were never far from the surface, unfortunately. For years, it seemed that the cosmopolitan nature of modern football had driven racism out of stadiums, that we were in fact in a kind of “age of reason” that was characterised by tolerance, fascination and civility. True, small pockets could be found if you had a dig in the soil, but mostly, contemporary audiences didn’t want to hear the likes of Christian Benteke or Daniel Sturridge being abused because of the colour of their skin. When you did hear it, you felt uncomfortable, as awkward as when you heard disparaging remarks about Jewish people.
We therefore shouldn’t be too surprised when we hear that anti-semitism and racism have reared their ugly heads at football matches once more. And although since the England team was abused in Montenegro there have been plenty of tap-room philosophers claiming that “it’s an Eastern European thing”, we shouldn’t forget that the 2018-19 season has seen racism come to the fore at English games. Moreover, English fans were accused of singing anti-semitic songs at a Europa League match in Hungary.
All over Europe, there have been incidents of racism and abuse aimed at Jews. There’s scarcely a country that hasn’t experienced some sort of problem, even Scandinavia which is supposed to be the smiling, tree-hugging, love-all region of Europe.
Football can not only clean-up its own act on the subject of racism, it can also point the way for the rest of the community. There can be no excuse for people getting away with such behaviour when football grounds are often decorated with wall-to-wall CCTV. We should encourage teams to protest and leave the field of play, regardless of how inconvenient that might be. As Pep Guardiola said, “football is a strong weapon” and there would be no better way to send a message. Of course, the culprits should be ejected and banned from attending games, but how about putting them in the same room as the player(s) they were abusing – how would, for example, the men who threw insults at Raheem Sterling react to looking the Manchester City player in the eye? Would they be ashamed?
The decision to take a team from the field should be left to the referee, however, who should adopt the stance that the conditions are unsuitable for playing a game. This really is not an issue to be debated, a match that is being played against a backdrop of racist abuse is a hostile situation and therefore the football should not continue – for the sake of common decency, civil order, player and spectator safety. It’s remarkable that nobody has felt it important enough to have referees decide if the underlying environment is appropriate – everyone is asking managers their view, but the decision should be at an official, more neutral, level.
Something needs to be done before it gets out of control. In any other walk of life, the antics of a group of people aiming insults at individuals would be treated as anti-social behaviour. Football should not allow itself to harbour people that have no respect for others. It is not funny to abuse black players, not acceptable to call Serbs “rapists and murderers”. Importantly, people have to realise and accept that almost every nation has skeletons in the cupboard, has incidents in history that can easily shame them. The world has become more globalised, football is a worldwide phenomenum and it provides a stage for all colours, religions and segments of society. Sadly, what we are seeing is symptomatic of much deeper problems that go beyond football.
Racism will destroy the global village aspect of the game, and that is something that should be avoided at all costs. That’s why we should not be frightened to act in a radical and hard-hitting fashion to punish those clubs, countries and supporter groups that threaten to undermine football. After all, in any other workplace, racial abuse would be punished immediately.