Ugliness in the beautiful game


Shane Hannon investigates why racism is so prevalent in football today, and asks what can be done to fight it.

Back in late October, a thrilling game of football between two of the top sides in the English Premier League took place at Stamford Bridge. Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath of the Chelsea-Manchester United match, an all too familiar adversary of the sport reared its ugly head once more. Referee Mark Clattenburg was accused of using inappropriate language, some of which were racist in nature, by a Chelsea player.

This latest allegation of racism comes after a turbulent year in English football, during which the Luis Suarez and John Terry cases took up the column inches in place of matters on the field of play. But is racism more prevalent in football than in other sports? Perhaps it is football’s worldwide popularity, attracting people from all social and ethnic backgrounds, which leaves it more open to these accusations than a less diverse sport would be.

Racism in football goes back almost as far as the sport itself. Dixie Dean, a dark-skinned  Everton forward in the 1930’s, had racist comments aimed at him as he left the pitch at half-time during a match in London. He reportedly punched the offender himself and ran down the players’ tunnel. Surprisingly, the police took no action against Dean as apparently the victim had “deserved” his punishment.

But here we are 80 years on and racism is still making its unwanted presence felt in the stands and on the pitches. It feels like every week there is a new case to keep the issue alive. Some question if the problem really is all that bad, but the statistics speak for themselves.

A recent report by BBC Sport looked at the lack of opportunities for black coaches in football. While 30% of players in the professional game in England are non-white, there are only four black managers in English professional football. Only one of those (Chris Hughton of Norwich City) manages in the Premier League.

Some argue that it doesn’t come down to colour, rather qualifications and experience, but one need look no further than the example of former Notts County, Birmingham City and Derby County defender Michael Johnson to realise that unfortunately this isn’t always the case.

Johnson began taking his coaching badges as a player and took up a coaching post in Notts County’s youth set-up after he retired in 2009. When the first-team manager Paul Ince, one of the few black managers in recent years, lost his job, Johnson (who held a Uefa Pro Licence; the highest coaching qualification) was also told he was surplus to requirements.

Johnson was replaced by a former under-12’s coach who only held a UEFA ‘B’ Licence. The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Chief Executive Gordon Taylor has maintained that “As the players’ voice, we are committed to tackling the issue of black players going into coaching and management.” But what, if anything, can the authorities do? One possible solution would be to follow the lead of the NFL by implementing a ‘Rooney Rule’.

The Rooney Rule, introduced to the NFL in 2003, requires all teams in the league to interview at least one candidate from an ethnic minority for head coaching and senior football operations jobs. Its success speaks for itself. Within three years, the percentage of African-American coaches in the NFL rose from 6% to 22%. This method would, at the very least, be a start for the FA in their attempts to eradicate racism from the sport.

Over the last year, the Luis Suarez and John Terry cases took racism in the English game to a whole new level. Former FA chief David Davies described the Suarez case as “one of the most difficult of modern times” as it was essentially one man’s word against another’s. Similarly, the Terry case dragged out into an 11-month saga.

Current FA chairman David Bernstein spoke of how “the reputation of English football has been damaged” because of it. The two cases were much the same, and yet the differing punishments handed out did little for the FA’s reputation.

Suarez was handed an eight-match ban and was fined £40,000 for racially abusing Patrice Evra of Manchester United, while Terry was dealt a four-match ban but handed a much steeper fine of £220,000 for doing likewise to QPR’s Anton Ferdinand. When compared, these varying punishments highlight the inconsistency amongst the powers that be in the English game.

It is discrepancies like this which recently compelled a handful of players to refuse to wear the now infamous ‘Kick It Out’ t-shirts during their warm-ups. The refusal to support an anti-racism campaign from some of the most prominent black players in the league shows that the players feel not enough is being done.

In a recent ComRes poll for the Sunday Mirror, 40% of people agreed that racism is widespread in English football; up from 31% in June. 57% were also convinced that it would be impossible to eliminate racism from football, although it seems few would argue that the FA and FIFA shouldn’t strive to achieve this.

It is worrying to think that a point could be reached where racism would become akin to foul language; frowned upon, yet acceptable. It is indisputable that racism is currently tainting the image of the sport, and this should never have been allowed to happen. It is time to re-paint football’s make-up and help reclaim the beautiful game once again.

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