Racism. An issue that, in modern football at least, seems to be inescapable. Countless incidents, collective outrage followed by discussions of how to move forward have become almost a weekly occurrence in English football
We all love to react in equal shock and horror when the TV picks up on a fan abusing a player for his skin colour. We love to hail ‘Kick it Out’ and stress the importance of players coming forward with their experiences. Most of all, we love to threaten the Bulgaria’s of the world to get their house in order whilst conveniently ignoring that ours is in a state. But, once we stop patting ourselves on the back and strip away our misplaced sense of achievement, all that remains is a simple question.
What is actually being done?
I was eleven years old when I first remember responding to racism on a football pitch. Responding, not experiencing, because for years I had dealt with comments from other kids on opposing teams. Childish stuff, comparing me to chocolate, faeces or any prominent black footballer who they didn’t like (Emile Heskey was a popular one). As the only black player on my team, my mum had made it clear to me from a young age that I would be an easy target, not just on the field, but in life.
But age 11 is when my perception of racism changed from simple name-calling to something far more sinister. I was involved in a clash with another player. I’d always been a cheeky player in both the game and my demeanour whilst playing it and whilst the opposition player attempted to run the ball out of play for a throw, I nipped in to make a tackle before he could realise. This did not go down well with the other player, who quickly tripped me from behind as I ran towards the box, clearly without intention of winning the ball.
Adrenalin pumping and all sense of reason gone, I got up straight away and turned around to show the defender exactly what I thought about his last tackle. After pushing him over, I was ready to walk away until I heard from the floor.
“Don’t touch me, stupid nigger!”
There was, it felt like, a brief moment where the world was moving in slow-motion. Half the players on my time looking shocked, the other half asking ‘What did he just say?’. The crowd of parents watching on the near side all heard, on the far side they wondered what had happened.
A brief scuffle ensued, most of what I said would most probably be best left out of this piece, but the most alarming part was yet to come. The ref, on the other side of the pitch so managed not to hear it (despite most of the parents close to him having heard it) ruled that the game would continue as long as myself and the perpetrator were subbed off for at least ten minutes. As I walked off the pitch, bemused and expressing my frustration at the idea the other player would be allowed to play on, a man who I can only assume to be the players father said to me,
“Maybe if you hadn’t have acted like one, he wouldn’t have called you one.”
And there, a man telling a child at least 30 years his junior that he essentially deserved to be racially abused, lies the problem that English football faces. Racism is a problem in society; people don’t live their lives as good-hearted people and suddenly become racist for 90 minutes every Saturday. Racism is ingrained in a person’s nature and thought, nurtured by their environment and passed down generation-to-generation.
Father to son.
‘If you have thought about the first thing you’re going to say that hurts someone, then you know why it hurts someone’ says Josiah Chudleigh, a case worker for an anti-racism group in Bristol, but also working part-time as a coach for Newport County.
‘[At the grass roots level] there’s one, maybe two, three, four people that will pick up on abuse when it happens.’
So, we revert back to my initial question; what is actually being done?
At the grassroots level, the problems still remain; Harringey Borough recently abandoned their FA cup tie with Yeovil Town due to racist abuse that was described by their chairman, Aki Achillea, as ‘soul-destroying’.
‘We have a multitude of West Indians, Africans, Portuguese. We have virtually every nationality as part of the playing squad, and to see them have to be subjected to that, it is soul-destroying.’ Achillea told the BBC
“Our players’ heads had gone, there were people with tears in their eyes in the dressing room. These are young kids and they shouldn’t be subjected to that.
The replay then took place behind closed doors after nationwide coverage and an agreement between the two sides and the FA. The replay played out without incident, finishing in 3-0 victory for Yeovil, but in essence it highlighted a much larger problem. Yes, action was taken but racism is clearly residing in the very grass roots of the game. Is that type of punishment going to scare away racists from football matches?
Just last week, a clip of a Manchester City fan making monkey gestures at Manchester United midfielder Fred went viral on social media. Now, whatever ridiculous excuse you could make for him, (the idea that being ‘overly-passionate‘ due to it being a derby match has been prominent on Twitter) Manchester City, as a club, have been no strangers to headlines involving racism.
On a live tv in the year 2019 🤦🏾♀️@premierleague
FIND and BAN him, Racism has no play in this game.
— Uche Jombo Rodriguez (@uchejombo) December 7, 2019
Whether it is the valiant battle Raheem Sterling has fought against media racial biases against him or the famed Bernardo Silva/Benjamin Mendy tweet scandal, in which the former compared the latter to a racist caricature, City’s fans have no excuse to be unaware of the racial climate. So how is it, that a club that has had its name linked with racism, both positively and negatively, could still have fans that are so brazen in their ignorance?
The problem is, racism is being treated as though it is simply a football problem. This is merely a symptom of a wider societal problem, fuelled by the rhetoric used against minorities by our media, politicians and the lack of action of football’s governing bodies. There is no point trying to tackle racism in the stands if that is not where the source is; people will bring their own bigoted opinions from home.
Football is not handling racism well; not even close to it. The governing bodies are continually letting down people that look like me and make no apology for it. But it’s a problem that our politicians are happy to leave at the door of FIFA, UEFA and the FA, instead of taking accountability for their own actions that have contributed to a cancer in society. And until these people take a look and the mirror and reflect on what they’ve created, who knows just how many more 11-year-olds will be forced to deal with racist comments like I did.
By Micah Chudleigh