Cancel games and take the teams off – the only solution to combat racism

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.

Photo: PA

Calling in on Wigan Athletic….In a week of own goals

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It had been a PR disaster week for Wigan Athletic and events off the field looked certain to keep the club in the headlines, for all the wrong reasons, for a few weeks to come. In 2013, when the Latics won the FA Cup, they were everyone’s darlings. Their manager, Roberto Martinez, was a sought-after commodity, and their Chairman, Dave Whelan, and his persona of “straight-talking good bloke”, was admired by everyone. Wigan were a great example of a small club that had “got it right”, we were told.

Whelan and Mackay

In the past week, they have hired Malky Mackay, whose controversial SMS texting has been the subject of investigation, and Whelan has made some ill-timed and inappropriate comments about Jewish people while also undermining Sino-British relations. It has created a mess that may end in tears in the Lancashire town.

Mackay’s case has been gathering momentum. It is certainly true that the former Cardiff City manager made comments that are unacceptable in the modern age. They make you cringe and the current TV series on how we lived in the 1970s underlines how society has moved on when it comes to race, homosexuality and sexual equality. There’s no point defending Mackay in any way because you would face a torrent of abuse from those that have been offended by his comments. But is his behaviour greatly different from many football people?. At Chelsea last season, Benteke took the field and people around me insisted on calling him a “BBB – Big Black Bastard” throughout the game. When I attended a Wingate & Finchley game, away supporters were calling the North Londoners “Jew Boys”, a reference to the heritage of that friendly, unassuming club. And only this season, I heard FC Romania referred to as “a bunch of benefit scrounging eastern Europeans.” It exists all over the game.

But Mackay is in the public eye and he should have been careful and aware of what is deemed to be acceptable and unacceptable. Should he be banned? Absolutely not. He should be disciplined, but he should pay his penalty and move on. Everyone makes mistakes and should have the opportunity to repair the damage they have caused.

Likewise, Dave Whelan. He has shown remarkable courage in employing Mackay, who had a good spell at Cardiff, far better than anyone could have expected. But he undermined his own support of Mackay by his comments. He becomes guilty by associating himself with the type of behaviour that Mackay is being accused of. Whelan, I am sure, is not a racist or anti-semite – he has used the time-honoured get-out clause of ‘some of my best friends’- but his comments were racist and anti-semitic. Ask the many black Wigan players down the years if Whelan has ever displayed racist gestures, I would wager they will not have a bad word to say about the man. Whelan is self-made, and he would surely set the narrative at the companies and organisations he has managed. Ask the people who have worked for Whelan what type of man they believe him to be.

He’s made a bad call and by doing so, he may, unwittingly, have made Mackay’s position far worse. Whelan has since said he will resign if anyone suggests he is a racist in the FA enquiry. That was also foolish, because that will severely punish Wigan Athletic.

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Northern Soul

It’s easy to associate Wigan with Rugby League. Those that recall BBC TV showing live second half action from a Rugby League game on Saturday afternoons will recall Eddie Waring talking of “up and unders” and teams like Wigan, Wakefield Trinity, Hull Kingston Rovers and Bradford Northern. They’ve all got marketing-driven names these days and Wigan, once the top sporting entity in town, are the Warriors. They share the DW stadium. Wigan is also one of the homes of Northern Soul, a music and dance movement that has attained cult status. The Wigan Casino was one of its most influential venues.

Wigan Athletic’s fans showed they have soul of a sort when Whelan took his seat in the West Stand. Call it human nature, or just the moral code of the game, but he was applauded by all and sundry. “They’re calling us a town of racists,” said one blue and white scarved fan. “Bloody top man, Dave.”

“You’re just a town full of racists”, was exactly the soundtrack coming from the 5,000-plus Middlesbrough fans who visited the DW Stadium on November 22, 2014. They had come en masse from the North East, creating havoc with Wigan’s ticketing arrangements.

We were told when we arrived at the box office that because we were not “on the database”, we had “no chance” of getting a ticket. Now Wigan is hardly Millwall circa 1970s or Leeds United, and crowds at the DW averaged 15,000 in 2013-14 and in 2014-15, they have dipped to less than 13,000. The fine Wigan stadium has a capacity of 25,000 so it’s been 50% full this season. The locals are not exactly clambering over themselves to get in, so supply certainly exceeds demand.

Explaining that we had come up from London to see the game had no effect. “We are turning people away from Scandinavia, New Zealand and all other the country,” the steward proudly said, which begs the question why a solution hasn’t been found. “It’s not us, it’s the police and the owner,” came the reply, hinting at some discontent with Mr Whelan. “This is a one-eyed town,” he added in what seemed like an accent honed on the Liverpool Kop.

We persuaded a tame local to buy tickets for us, good value at £ 20, but the aggravation was not welcomed. Surely Wigan need all the friends they can get – especially in the current climate?

Whelan’s ovation does typify the game of football, though. For example, bad boys always get a rousing reception when they return from prison or suspension. While other strands of society would express embarrassment in such adversity, football seems to revel in embracing those stepping out of line with a collective reaction of, “he’s one of us”. The sentiment around Mackay was generally positive, too.

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Game on

The reason Mackay has been installed at Wigan is to try and rekindle a club that has lost its way since relegation from the Premier in 2013. They finished fifth in 2013-14 under Uwe Rosler, but missed out in the play-offs. Rosler took over in December 2013 from Owen Coyle, who had replaced Everton-bound Martinez following the FA Cup triumph. Rosler didn’t last long as Wigan started the 2014-15 poorly.

On the day Mackay took over, Wigan were third from bottom in the Championship and had won three of their 17 games. They had won once in 13 games, a 2-1 success at Derby County. Middlesbrough, though, have genuine hopes of a promotion campaign. Sitting third in the table, they underlined their credentials with a 4-0 victory against Norwich recently. Their form has reawakened local passions and their travelling support was impressive at Wigan.

Despite the noise made by the Boro fans, Wigan went ahead in the 25th minute with a superbly- taken free kick by Shaun Maloney that gave Middlesbrough’s veteran Greek goalkeeper, Dimi Konstantopoulous, little chance. Middlesbrough enjoyed plenty of possession, with Adam Reach’s left foot causing problems for Wigan. The home side relied a lot on the virtuosity of Honduran winger Roger Espinoza, but although he had skill in abundance, he looked a frustrating individual to play alongside, his final ball often wayward or over-ambitious.

Just on the interval, Adam Forshaw almost added another goal for Wigan, but his volley went wide.

Middlesbrough equalised in the 58th minute, Patrick Bamford sliding the ball through the legs of Konstantonpoulous after exchanging passes with Spanish striker Kike. Bamford is on loan from Chelsea, one of many players sent out from Stamford Bridge to learn their trade. His loping style may not be to the taste of his boss at Chelsea, but he looked able to hold his own at Championship level.

Wigan almost regained the lead when Chris McCann struck a post and Bamford should have done better in the closing stages from a George Friend cross. If referee David Webb had been a shade more generous, Middlesbrough would have been awarded at least one penalty right at the death. Final score 1-1. Fair result.

And what’s next?

The Wigan saga will roll on. I wouldn’t bet on Mackay being in the job by the end of the season as the investigation unfolds. Wigan Athletic fans better hope that the outcome doesn’t result in Whelan leaving, because it really would mean the Road to Wigan Pier would be a very rocky one.

Anti-semitism and racism in football – it exists but ostriches prevail

When in Rome…..scenes at Lazio

The events in recent weeks around accusations of racism (John Terry , Mark Clattenburg and that Letchworth-based man) and anti-semitism (West Ham crowd) have brought the subject very much to the forefront of media debate. Should we be surprised that such language exists at football matches? No.

Prejudice has always existed at football grounds, among football people and basically, among the masses. Despite a huge percentage of professional footballers (indeed sportsmen) being black, you still hear people describe them as “spades”, “darkies” and other such insults. While black players of your own club are OK, those of the opposition are not – that’s the sentiment.

Anti-semitism is curious. It exists in many walks of life, but it has always seemed acceptable to call Tottenham “Yids” and the club’s fans (presumably the non-Jewish ones) have long adopted the term as a nickname. It’s a bit of a fallacy that all Tottenham fans are Jewish, because many patrons of the Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal, happen to be Jewish. People behind the scenes at Arsenal are Jewish, and guess what, Roman Abramovich is also Jewish, along with one or two of his close aides. To make matters even more complex, David Gold, co-chairman of West Ham, is also Jewish!

The prejudice is not limited to top-line football. Wingate & Finchley is a club that plays several rungs below Spurs, but they have Jewish roots and most of their officials are also Jewish. At a recent game involving the North London club, they were described to me as “Jew boys”, and that was from someone who should know better. Wingate & Finchley, it should be added, are one of the nicest clubs on the non-league circuit and deserve much better public support.

Likewise, women in football also encounter problems, although now that the female game is gathering momentum, credibility is rising. But women in the men’s game, now that’s a different matter. Just watch one of the many lady physios run across the pitch and hear the catcalls. But I witnessed a rather unsavoury incident a few years ago when a lady  referee, again in the non-league world, gave a penalty in the final minute of a game at Croydon. The spot-kick was converted and Croydon lost. The abuse – from Croydon officials – was terrible, calling the referee a “whore”, “bitch”, “slapper” and suchlike. When I intervened and commented to them that they were “out of order”, I was greeted with abuse, and at the foot of the grandstand, two Croydon heavies were waiting to meet me. That club doesn’t exist today and I wonder why?

One of football’s biggest problems is that it doesn’t like whistle-blowers. The Croydon incident is one thing, but when I reported on it in the press, I was criticized for pointing it out – one letter said “shame on you”. Similarly, over a decade ago, I highlighted the heady mixture of racism, homophobia and abuse (one player was called ‘chemotherapy man’ because he recently suffered from cancer) that was the soundtrack of a group of non-league fans at Hendon. Some extreme fans wanted me banned from the ground for doing so. Ten years later, someone else tried to curb bad language at the same ground and received almost identical treatment.

The behavior of football fans reflects society in many ways and that’s where the sickness lies. The game merely provides an outlet that in the past, has been difficult to curb. In the CCTV world of antiseptic stadia, it should be far easier to identify and punish.