Race to the bottom

The problem of racism has long bedevilled international sport. The latest instance of racist abuse came from the stands during England’s Test match against New Zealand at Wellington. The incident occurred when Barbados-born England pacer Joffra Archer was returning to the pavilion after being dismissed on the final day of the match last Monday.

When Archer tweeted about the incident, New Zealand Cricket promptly issued an apology, saying, “We are shocked and disappointed to hear of the verbal abuse Joffra Archer received after the Test today … racial abuse is never okay.”

That having been said, the problem of racist abuse from the stands is not a phenomenon that has been endemic to cricket. It’s football (actually footballers of colour) which has had 
to endure the worst excesses of racism and racist abuse. A number of national football associations have failed to step up to the plate to combat this disease.

In response to increasing incidents of racist abuse and discrimination mainly against players of colour, FIFA, the governing body of world football, began in 1993 a campaign called “Kick it Out”, it was officially called “Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football”. In 1997, the “Kick it Out” campaign also acquired an organisation.

This organisation provides a platform for football players and lovers to report incidents of abuse, through a website and a mobile app. It also works closely with other organisations to raise awareness of the impact of social media upon football-related hate crime. Many of Kick It Out’s campaigns focus on attempts to promote equality, diversity, understanding, and tolerance through community action, from the grassroots to the professional level. Kick it Out enjoys a supportive relationship with the Football Supporters’ Federation.

Despite the massive resources being poured into the “Kick it Out” campaign, incidents of racist abuse continue to occur at an alarming pace. Let’s begin with England, where the problem is probably somewhat more muted than in some other parts of Europe. In 2018, coloured referee Joel Mannix reported that his club chairperson wiped his hands on his trousers after shaking hands with him. “I was like: ‘Wow!’” Mannix recalls. “2018, it’s still happening. I looked at him while he was wiping his hand and he kind of stopped and didn’t know what to do. I knew my hands were fresh, I’d just cleaned my hands. I knew there was no residue or dirt on my hands — and then it was quite funny counting on his team six or seven black players. They’re there to do a job, I wonder if you shake their hands as well.”

In a sense, the crux of the problem may well lie here. Most European clubs — and not just the big ones — have large contingents of coloured players in their teams, either homegrown (that is, for instance, British kids who’ve been born and raised in the United Kingdom) or imports from Africa or South America. Many West European nations also boast an impressive array of coloured people in their national squads — just look at England, France, Holland, Portugal, and Belgium.

This massive army of extremely talented players are lionised by the fans and reviled at the same time. The dynamic is complex. Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford are both great favourites amongst the Old Trafford faithful, but when both missed consequential penalties in consecutive matches at the beginning of this season, they were subjected to racist abuse by their own fans.

Much the same thing happened to Chelsea teenager Tammy Abraham, who was given his senior debut early this season. He was subjected to vile racist abuse by club supporters after he saw a penalty being saved by the goalkeeper in a match against Liverpool.

Lest you think racist abuse is merely a punishment for on-field mistakes, let us remember the case of Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku, who moved from Manchester United to Internazionale this season. After he was subjected to monkey chants by Cagliari fans, an Inter fan group issued a statement saying such chants were not racist. At least not in Milan.

But they are, and the only coloured player to have donned an Italian jersey, Mario Balotelli, was also subjected to monkey chants from fans of the club Verona, while playing for Brescia. 
The volatile Balotelli, not a man to take things lying down, kicked the ball towards the part of the stand from where the chants were emanating and almost left the pitch before players on both sides pacified him.

There are indications that racism in football is getting worse, not better. Some argue this looks to be the case because technology — smartphones and various apps — have made reporting easier. But on the ground, the reality is that football-related hate crimes grew 47 per cent in the 2018-19 season in England and Wales.

As far as Europe is concerned, a credible hypothesis is that racism in sport mirrors the growth of right-wing tendencies in society as a whole, which in turn produces right-wing regimes. Brexit and Boris Johnson, alongside other increasingly popular rightwing leaders in West and East Europe, are prime examples of isolationist and xenophobic supremacism.


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