Today’s Premiership clash between Chelsea and Liverpool provides a good opportunity for me to write about something about which I have been thinking for a long time – the controversy over racism in English football. Chelsea and Liverpool are the two clubs at the heart of that controversy. Earlier this year, Luis Suarez, Liverpool’s Uruguayan forward, was banned for eight matches for calling Manchester United’s Patrice Evra a ‘negrito’. Suarez insisted that this was colloquial Spanish for ‘mate’. An FA disciplinary board found him guilty of racism. More recently Chelsea (and former England) captain John Terry was accused of racially abusing Queen’s Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand during a match. This time the police got involved. Terry was charged under the criminal law with using ‘abusive language’ but was acquitted in court. After that acquittal the FA charged him with the same offence and, with a lower burden of proof, found him guilty. Then last month, Chelsea accused a referee, Mark Clattenburg, of using ‘inappropriate’, and reportedly racist, language towards two of its players, a claim currently being investigated by both the police and the FA.
The discussion of these cases by football authorities, politicians and the media has led to a growing sense of English football as a hotbed of racism. A number of leading black players, including Rio Ferdinand and Jason Roberts, have accused Kick It Out, football’s official antiracist campaign of being ‘soft’ on racism. Some have threatened to create a breakaway union black players’ union. A national poll revealed that 40 per cent of people think that racism is ‘rife’ in football and more than half believe it will never be eliminated.
As someone who has been both watching football and fighting racism for nearly thirty years, I find much of this discussion surreal. I am, for my sins, a Liverpool fan. I am Gary Neville’s worst nightmare – probably the only person brought up in Manchester who ended up supporting the real Reds. I arrived in Britain as a six-year-old, knowing nothing about football, still less about the sociology of tribal support. By the time I found out about the bitterness of the rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United, it was too late. The tribal, irrational, unconditional nature of football support meant that I was stuck with my loyalties.
In my teenage years visiting Anfield, standing on the Kop, I was often spat on, kicked, called a ‘fucking Paki cunt’ and worse. I was hailed not infrequently with a chorus of ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack, so all the Pakis can fuck off back’. Not just from the visiting fans, though that often happened, but also from the Kop faithful. Not by everyone on the Kop, of course, or even by most people, but by a significant number, and a significant number that was largely tolerated. In the 70s and 80s racism was endemic in the football, and the authorities did not want to know.
Why did I carry on supporting Liverpool despite the abuse? Partly because sporting obsessions are rarely driven by rational considerations. Partly because to have stopped watching football would have been to give into racism; and I am the kind of person who, if I am told I cannot do something, I insist even more on doing it. And partly because standing on the Kop was little different then from standing on any street corner in Britain. Britain was a very different place then, and so was football. Racism then was vicious, visceral and often fatal. Stabbings were everyday facts of life, firebombings almost weekly events, and murders all too common.
This is why the current furore over racism seems so bizarre. I cannot remember the last time I faced the kind of abuse that was so common in the eighties. Racism still exists, of course, and needs always to be confronted, but it is relatively isolated. Indeed, it is precisely because racism is so rare that it seems so shocking when we are confronted with it.
If I cannot remember the last time I faced the kind of abuse that was so common in the seventies and eighties, nor can most players. David James was for many years the England goalkeeper, one of England’s leading black players and a highly articulate opponent of racism. ‘I struggle with the racist issue in football’ he observed recently at a ‘Leaders in Football’ conference at Stamford Bridge. Not because he faces racism all the time, but because he so rarely does. ‘I don’t see it’, James said, ‘and that’s not because I’ve got my head in the sand. In the earlier days, yes, but the game’s changed.’ In the whole of the 2010-11 season, there were just 43 arrests in England for racist or indecent chanting. A number of black players have certainly faced nasty abuse on Twitter, but that tells us more about the character of Internet discussions than it does about racism in football.
The fact that racism is rare does not mean that it should not be challenged wherever it appears. But just because racism is not right does not mean that we should pretend that it is rife.
If racism is not the issue that once it was, why the sudden interest on the part of the football authorities in combating racism? Having spent decades ignoring racism in the sport when it was a real, live issue and required a robust response, the FA is now trying to gain the moral high ground by conducting a war that has largely been won. It would have taken guts and commitment to have stood up to racism three decades ago. Today, the FA is trying to clamber on to a moral high ground that has long since become crowded.
If the character of racism has changed over the past three decades, so too has the character of antiracism. Antiracism has all too often become less about challenging discrimination or hatred, more about moral posturing. ‘A lot of the issues that we’ve gone on about in the last season or so, it’s more about people driving the issue than the issue being a real focus’, as David James put it.
Antiracism has also increasingly become a matter of social control, of the law defining what is and is not acceptable for people to say. Consider two recent cases. Last month, Rangers fan Connor McGhie was jailed for three months for ‘religiously aggravated breach of the peace’ for singing ‘offensive songs which referred to the Pope and the Vatican and called Celtic “Fenian bastards”’. Meanwhile the Society of Black Lawyers have threatened Spurs fans with court action if they continue to refer to themselves as ‘Yids’ or the ‘Yid Army’. The Rangers fan was undoubtedly motivated by bigotry, the Spurs fans mostly by a desire to challenge bigotry. Both cases reveal, however, how antiracism in football has become part of the wider campaign to use the criminal law to ban speech deemed offensive or hateful.
I have long argued that the giving of offence, and even hate speech, should be a moral matter but not a matter for the criminal law. That is as true on the football pitch as on the streets. We should always challenge racism. We should also always challenge attacks on liberties in the guise of faux antiracism.