Racism on and off the field


It would be easy to say that after Raheem Sterling of Manchester City became the latest victim of racist abuse, there’s something’s morally wrong with only a small bunch of Chelsea football fans. But the ugly truth is that racism is still very much alive in British football and British society.

There were 520 less than pleasing incidents in the 2017-18 season, up from 469 in 2016-17. Most of these reports (53 percent) were about racism. Out of the 1,500 football-related arrests last season, 15 arrests were for racist and indecent chanting. That’s more than double the arrests in the 2016-17 season. For good measure, Arsenal star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang recently had a banana thrown at him by a fan.

As the Sterling story shows, racism in British soccer stadiums is growing. Standing in the front row, within touching distance of Sterling, a group of men stood up and leaned over the advertising boards to direct abuse at the 24-year-old. Chelsea said they had identified and suspended four of the culprits.

The scene, captured on live TV, sparked outrage from fans, pundits and former players. Messages of support for Sterling have flooded in but racism is lurking on British fields - although it was supposed to have been eradicated. Racist abuse started to become less common in the 1990s as more world-class players from abroad were recruited by English clubs but the problem resurfaced and apparently Brexit has something to do with that. Hate crimes rose after the 2016 Brexit referendum and the same could happen when the UK leaves the EU in 2019. Sometimes lost in the Brexit mess is that one of the biggest reasons Britons voted to leave the EU was because of the perceived threats and dangers from immigration. In this post-Brexit vote environment, people apparently feel free to be openly racist, vilifying certain sections of society for no other reason than their color.

According to Raheem, even the press is helping to fuel racism by the ways in which they portray young black footballers. In a post, the England international cites newspaper stories about two teammates buying £2m houses each. The headline refers to the black teammate as having indulged while the white player bought the home for his mother and is described as having “set up a future”. Indeed, just one black sports journalist was sent by the national newspapers to cover the World Cup this summer out of the 63 in Russia, even though nearly half of the England football squad was made up of black, Asian and minority ethnic background players.

Racism is not just in England. It operates at the institutional and fan cultural levels in almost every country in Europe. And racism is not a problem intrinsic to football; it’s a problem in society. Fans are at a football match for two hours a week, but for the other 166 hours it is everywhere else in society. Sports and in particular football, the world’s most popular sport, are a microcosm of society. Until racism is treated seriously in mainstream society, it will always be shunted off in football and treated as something that is not very serious.

Britain now is not as it was in the 1970s. Today’s racism is nowhere near the level of the 1980s. It is significantly down from the peak of 44 racism-linked arrests in 2010-11. But it is extraordinary that it still clings to football. The sport seems to have a racist tradition.

Cultural change needs to be applied across the football industry. Incidents of racial abuse are a criminal offence; justice should be served. The fans who taunted Sterling think they were just being anti-Sterling which is their right. But it’s not their right to be racist.