The press lounge at a Premiership ground one evening a few years ago. Journalists gathered for a midweek game are looking at a TV screen that is replaying goals from the previous weekend. Dwight Yorke scores against a team supported by one of those watching, who walks up to the screen and says loudly, in mock indignation: “Yorke, you black twat!” In the wake of last month’s friendly in Madrid, the journalist in question was one of many who set about suggesting various forms of action that might be taken against Spain for the Bernabéu crowd’s racial abuse of black England players. It is fair to assume, then, that he has long since seen the error of his ways.
The newspapers were completely right to express their outrage – the abuse was appalling, as was the Spanish Football Association’s craven attempt to downplay it initially and to blame the English media for winding up Luis Aragonés before the match. Spain will surely be punished if FIFA have any intention of getting to grips with a problem that has escalated at international and club matches in parts of southern and eastern Europe in recent years. If it can be impressed upon people gathered in a football stadium that their team will suffer directly as a consequence of their displaying such prejudice, then there is a good chance that it will cease (though you wonder exactly what it will take to make Real Madrid acknowledge that their openly racist fan group, the Ultra Sur, are a problem).
But prevailing attitudes won’t change as a result of football crowds being discouraged from expressing racist sentiments. They are derived from societies as a whole and need to be addressed by government intervention, as was the case in the UK with the 1968 and 1976 Race Relations Acts – pieces of legislation widely opposed in certain newspapers (and not because, as the sponsors now concede, they were wrong to exempt the police from the provisions).
Prejudice based on skin colour has not been eradicated in this country, where there is racially motivated crime, including murder, and the overtly racist BNP have gained council representatives in several towns in recent years. But race relations in general are a lot better than they were. In football, the outcry caused by Ron Atkinson’s overheard remarks about Marcel Desailly might be seen as a sign of this (not to mention the apparent conversion of the writer who was once troubled by Dwight Yorke).
The game conducted its own anti- racism campaign, led by fans and the Professional Footballers’ Association, and there are few audible signs of prejudice at grounds now. Apart, that is, from matches involving the England team. In the wake of the England-Spain match Gary Neville suggested that if it was English fans who had caused offence, action would be swift. But though UEFA have threatened to expel the national team from tournaments because of violence, some England fans get away with a lot else. Sections of the crowd habitually sing songs associated with Ulster paramilitaries, tied up with religious hatred, but are never publicly condemned for doing so by the football authorities, nor for carrying flags showing these allegiances.
The FA was fined for the crowd’s abuse of the Turkey players and supporters during Wayne Rooney’s competitive debut at Roker Park in April 2003, but no one seemed to think that the England manager should issue a public apology for the chants of “I’d rather be a Paki than a Turk”. Though fan groups – as with racism at club level – try to counter these attitudes, the football authorities would prefer not to draw attention to such things for the same reason that the Spanish FA opted for silence directly after the Madrid game and the media are far less interested in anything to do with racism against people from Islamic countries – in some cases preferring to stoke it up.
We have become sensitive to one form of race prejudice – open abuse of people on the basis of their skin colour – but will tolerate signs of a more general xenophobia. In a story headlined Spain could become world pariah, the Daily Express talked of the “vile abuse” in Madrid; the front page of the same paper the previous week had warned readers of A Gypsy camp in every town. The Daily Mirror joined the condemnation of the Bernabéu crowd, but during Euro 96 they aimed grotesque insults at two of England’s opponents, Spain and Germany, for which their then editor, who likes to pose as a football fan, should have been sacked. The Sun nakedly used November’s incidents to assert racial superiority over the Spanish, even dragging the Spanish Armada into the argument.
The outrage at events in Madrid was fully justified. But until this country is free of the same problems, we have to be careful about dishing out lectures.
From WSC 215 January 2005. What was happening this month