Racist incidents in games between Serbian and British sides have rightly led to condemnation – but not always of the right people, argues Jonathan Wilson. Some of the outrage is counter-productive, too

There is no subject more certain to set forth tidal waves of sanctimony than racism. Discussion has become impossible, largely because British football has been so successful in its campaign against racism that it now feels compelled to lecture the rest of the world on the subject. It isn’t helping.

After England players were racially abused by Serbia fans – and, it was alleged, players – during the European Under-21 tournament in the Netherlands this summer, I was asked on to Irish radio to talk about the incident with the former Chelsea defender Paul Elliott. I said that calls to expel Serbia from the tournament – indeed any sanction for the Serbian FA – were nonsensical. The fans involved, I said, should be isolated and prosecuted under whatever public-order legislation was appropriate under Dutch law, and the Serbian FA, which had already condemned the chanting, should launch an internal investigation as to whether any of their players were guilty, and punish any who were accordingly.

The number of fans travelling from Serbia to the tournament was minimal and all required visas, making them easy to identify. The vast majority of Serbia fans in Nijmegen, though, were migrants to the Netherlands or Germany who had bought tickets locally. Clubs or national associations are responsible for security in their own stadium, and ensuring players, coaches, officials and fans are not racially abused is part of that; when a club or national FA are in charge of the sale of tickets to travelling fans, then once again they have a responsibility. The Serbian FA had in no way been able to control the distribution of tickets; they could not reasonably be expected to exercise control over those who bought them. Elliott disagreed and reiterated, again and again, what an evil racism is.

Well, of course it is, but that doesn’t mean you start punishing the wrong people. There are serious deficiencies in the way UEFA and FIFA are handling the campaign against racism – you wonder what sort of priorities lead Cameroon to be fined £86,000 for wearing sleeveless shirts during the African Cup of Nations in 2004, while the Spanish FA were fined £45,000 for the racist chanting during their friendly against England in Madrid later the same year – but this felt horribly like people taking another opportunity to give Serbia (which was, after all, the last European country against which Britain went to war) a good kicking.

Shouldn’t the Serbian FA make stamping out racism, encouraging a culture of tolerance, its number-one priority? Shouldn’t it follow the British lead? Well, in an ideal world, yes. But given that the Serbian FA are an impoverished body, already stretched beyond their means by their efforts to stamp out match-fixing and tackle organised crime, to expect them to invest huge amounts in anti-racism schemes is to take no account of the situation on the ground. Fourteen club directors have been murdered in Serbia in the past decade; there are six black players in the Serbian league: where do you think the priority should lie?

As it turned out, the Serbian FA did not investigate the accusations of racism against their own players, and in that, I believe, they were wrong. Serbia’s reaction as a whole to the issue of racism has been to retreat into a default position of fuck-you isolationism. That is unhelpful, but it is a response for which British sanctimony is partly responsible. Football should be a way for Serbia to reintegrate into global society after the Milosevic years, but instead it has become another battleground.

The issue of racism dominated the build-up to Rangers’ Champions League qualifier against Red Star Belgrade. In the context of British journalism this made sense as DaMarcus Beasley had been racially abused during the second-round win against Zeta Golubovci of Montenegro, and recalled being racially abused in a previous match against Red Star while with PSV. To Serbian ears, though, it was yet another example of the British pre-judging them. They point to a widespread anti-Serb prejudice in Britain.

This is hard to deny. Matt Derbyshire’s unfortunate comment that “everyone knows what kind of country they are” in the wake of that Under-21 match in Nijmegen was just the latest example of it. Two years ago, Nenad Jestrovic was sent off for racially abusing Momo Sissoko in a Champions League game between Anderlecht and Liverpool at Anfield. In the press-box, we had no idea why the red card had been shown. “It’ll be racism,” a senior British journalist said. “They’re all like that there.” As it turned out, it was for racism, but that doesn’t change the disturbing logic that had led him to his conclusion. For those in Serbia appalled by racism and battling against it, there can be nothing so demoralising as such crassness. And so, when a Rangers fan allegedly called a group of Serbian journalists “refugees” at Ibrox, it was seized upon by the Serbian press. “See,” they were effectively saying. “See, they’re racist as well. And nobody does anything about it.” The incident was trivial, and their response a nonsense – there is no equivalence between one such insult and a few hundred people making monkey chants – but the fact that even Serbian broadsheets ran with the story indicates how entrenched positions have become.

British sanctimony – the tendency to stand from our side of the fence and point accusingly at the debris in next door’s garden while calling for the neighbours to be expelled from the street – is partly to blame for that. And now, after Mido’s abuse by Newcastle fans at Middlesbrough, it turns out our garden may not be as clean as we thought. And the defence that “it’s not racist, he just looks like Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber”, is craven; anybody who can’t see, in the present climate, why accusing an Arab footballer of carrying a bomb is both offensive and inflammatory probably shouldn’t be allowed out of the house alone.

Newcastle, who were responsible for the sale of those tickets, did not condemn the chanting, yet nobody called for Newcastle to be expelled from the Premier League. But then nobody treats Geordies as a homogenous mass of racist psychopaths. Prejudice cuts two ways.

From WSC 248 October 2007


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