Imagine you’re a Football Association official. In the space of a couple of weeks you will have experienced two very different attitudes towards race prejudice. In Bratislava for England’s Euro 2004 qualifier with Slovakia, you will have seen and heard a large section of the crowd, the middle-aged people with their children in the expensive seats as well as the skinhead nationalists, join in abusive chants aimed at black England players. The following week, you might have attended a “Kick Racism Out of Football” event at an English League ground where you will have seen the crowd applaud the anti-ra-cism banners carried around the pitch by teams of schoolchildren.
Quite a contrast – barbaric Europe, civilised England – one dwelt on by many newspapers in the aftermath of the England match. But it’s not a true picture. No one would argue with the FA line that “in this day and age” black footballers shouldn’t have to put up with racial abuse in a football stadium, but nor should inhabitants of a city staging a match involving England have to put up with the boorish behaviour of a certain section of the travelling fans.
In keeping with the finger-wagging tone of their pronouncements on the events in Bratislava, the FA even tried to claim that disturbances inside the stadium were triggered by England fans reacting to the racial abuse directed by the home crowd at black English players. After 20 years of England games abroad being accompanied by crowd violence, it’s understandable that the FA should want to point out that English fans can be on the receiving end too – as was the case with some of the heavy-handed policing in Bratislava. But no one involved in running English football is in a position to lecture others about race prejudice.
Racism in eastern Europe is a product of cultural insularity in countries that don’t have the racial mix of many west European states. Racism in Britain is about ingrained intolerance. You are unlikely to hear monkey noises reverberate around a League ground, but persistent personal abuse of black and foreign players still goes unchecked. The main victims of such insidious comments these days are less likely to be the players themselves, who will not hear many of the individual comments, but black and Asian fans, who will.
Of course, it’s not easy for an individual spectator to challenge a group of fellow fans who are baiting players. But it is too often the case that stewards or police are approached with a complaint and appear disinclined to take action – which, of course, inhibits anyone from bothering to complain a second time. Sadly, the people who systematically commit acts of racial abuse are unlikely to be in any way swayed by a publicity campaign. Clubs back Kick It Out with perimeter advertising and leaflets in programmes but it isn’t yet producing results in the form of more people being ejected from grounds for racial abuse and banned.
Positive strides have been made in tackling racism at football matches in the last two decades. The appointment of a black manager is no longer major news but the football industry as a whole remains overwhelmingly white and wholly unreflective of the composition of most teams (15 per cent of professionals in the English leagues are from non-white backgrounds). What are fans to make of the FA’s pious noises on racism, when their own then director of refereeing, Ken Ridden, was named as one of two people primarily responsible for the racial discrimination against and unfair dismissal of the referee Gurnam Singh at an employment tribunal last year? According to one witness, Ridden said: “We don’t want people like him in the Premier League.” Ridden is still England’s representative on UEFA’s referees’ committee.
The effects of such official indifference can be seen at football grounds up and down the country every weekend. The 2001 FA Premier League National Fan Survey found that black and Asian fans comprised less than one per cent of those attending top level matches.
With attendances still healthy (in terms of numbers, at least), clubs may not feel there is any urgency about dispelling the antipathy or ambivalence felt towards them by so many people who, but for their colour, would be a natural constituency. Quite apart from the moral cowardice involved, such complacency looks foolish at a time when cash-strapped clubs need to fall back on whatever community resources they can muster. In the words of one Leicester fan of Indian origin who wrote to the Observer on the subject: “I haven’t dared – during the last ten years – to go to a match. The stewards and police see it every week, nothing happens about it. So, impoverished team of mine, I keep my money in my pocket because I simply don’t believe I’ll have my dignity protected at a football match.”
From WSC 190 December 2002. What was happening this month