IT is not easy to warm to some of today’s footballers, especially those that find it hard to resist conspicuous consumerism or consider that with enormous wealth comes permission to misbehave.
That aside, in an age where many of the sins of the past are being addressed, racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, sexism and other isms are, rightly, no longer tolerated. Once again, football has let itself down and people are horrified that, in 2019, we are still seeing examples of unacceptable rascist abuse. This time it’s Bulgaria, but we must resist the temptation to ignore events closer to home.
Britain, since 2016, seems to have given license to bigots, closet racists, the ignorant and the myopic. Or maybe these people just feel that, in the spirit of xenophobia, they can comfortably come to the fore once more.
Raheem Sterling may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he’s an excellent player who has not had an easy early life. Like any of Chelsea or Manchester City’s black players, he’s entitled to believe he should not be addressed in the way that was widely reported at the end of 2018. Fair play to Sterling for speaking out.
We would be naive to suggest that racism doesn’t exist in Britain. It is bubbling away beneath the surface at football. At major grounds, it is not unusual to hear, at a very localised level as opposed to the chanting of the 1970s and 1980s, references to “that big black bastard” or similar comments. It is also still considered “banter” to make racist jokes, just as it is “having a laugh” to be sexist or homophobic.
To be fair, the current generation has a very different take on these subjects. Ask anyone who has a son or daughter in their early 20s and they will invariably accuse their parents of racism or homophobia when, unwittingly, they say something that is not longer acceptable.
I was shocked to witness, three years ago, at a London game, a man in his 50s walk up to a young black fan and say: “We don’t want your type here, f*** off to Arsenal.” While this was going on, friends of the assailant (mixed races and ages) just laughed, while a steward (who was black) stood grinning. At the same time, visiting fans from Serbia were being abused for events that took place in the Balkan War.
Older generations, schooled to believe that Great Britain is called just that because of its Empire rather than its geography, were brought up in a different time, so they will often make mistakes and be somewhat clumsy. That’s not an excuse, but it does mean they have to be careful how they come across. But incidents like the one I experienced are completely inexcusable.
The current discussions around anti-semitism, and the laughable attempts to sweep them under the carpet, are also typical of the way something as culturally sensitive as persecution of Jews can be tolerated. A few years ago, I attended a game at Wingate & Finchley, a club steeped in Jewish sporting culture. “We’re playing the Jew Boys today,” said one club official of the visiting team. I commented that this was no way to describe the home club, but the reply was: “I can tell you’re not 100% British.”
Almost 20 years ago, I tried to highlight the level of racism and homophobia at a local club. People were incensed and one or two wanted me banned for expressing my opinion. Times and attitudes have changed, thankfully.
Similarly, the attitude to women in football is still seen as a curiosity, despite the increased exposure the women’s game has received. Again, back in the early 2000s, referee Alison Chapman was called everything from a bitch to a whore for awarding a last minute penalty at a game in Croydon. I was incensed and commented to the club’s officials that this was an outrageous way for them to behave. I was escorted onto the team coach as a couple of “heavies” were waiting for me by the clubhouse. What’s more, when I reported on the incident, I received messages of “shame on you” from supporters of a rival club. Sometimes, football gets the people it deserves.
More women in football is undoubtedly a naturally good thing, although we are still a long way from creating the perfect environment. Football could do with less testosterone and fewer alpha males.
And the Raheem Sterling story also shows that we haven’t yet learned how to respect each other properly – in a country that often considers it is one of the more sophisticated in Europe, one that championed its multi-culturalism as an asset. The last three years have demonstrated that the wheel may have been turning backwards for a while in Britain, let alone Sofia’s football grounds.