As the latest racism saga to engulf football continues to swirl uncomfortably around the upcoming matchday, from which Mark Clattenburg will again stand down, the sport’s participants could do with taking a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror. The litany of soul-searching extends from entitled players to their overprotective clubs, from a sensationalist media to fans with a taste for abuse that makes them get their three-year old sons involved (as was seen by the heinous video of a three-year Arsenal fan singing obscene songs about Robin van Persie at the apparent behest of his father). All who have been guilty of the above crimes have inflamed delicate situations, and turned football’s reliance on its pantomime element and heady narrative-building into a weapon that is causing serious damage to people, their careers and their personalities.
It is difficult to pick a first culprit for the mess football finds itself in when there are so many, but Chelsea’s behaviour in the aftermath of the acrimonious 3-2 defeat to Manchester United seems a good place to start. How could they rush to damn Mark Clattenburg as a racist just two hours after the match had finished, in full knowledge that a rapacious media would seize on their embryonic statement and leave a stain on his character that will not be fully wiped off for the rest of his life? There was no way Chelsea could have collected enough evidence to substantiate their claim in 120 minutes, and jumping to a conclusion before thoroughly examining all the necessary evidence was reckless and unprofessional. What little evidence eventually trickled through in the following days was centred around a witness who barely does the term justice: John Obi Mikel never heard the abusive word said to have been directed against him by Clattenburg (“monkey”), but nonetheless made a witness statement using Ramires’s – a player with fledgling command of the English language – account of what he had heard. A Chelsea player also claimed that Clattenburg had further called Juan Mata a “Spanish twat”, although that too was never heard by the apparent target and was eventually dropped. How Mikel’s complaint stuck on the back of evidence that was no greater than the Mata one is something that might be explained by the inquiry in the coming weeks, but complaints over black players have always carried greater weight in of themselves courtesy of the attention drawn to this particular form of racism by the media and that might have emboldened Mikel and Chelsea to persist regardless of the scant evidence.
Are the media’s current intentions in training their sights on racism in the game noble, or have they inflamed an otherwise domiciled issue for commercial purposes to the point where everyone – including black players – has lost touch with the ground reality? Before Patrice Evra started the first of a trio of racist cases that has soured the Premier League, it was difficult to remember football’s most exciting league having a serious problem with racism. Compared to the frequent monkey chanting in Spain, or organised humiliation of black players in Italy, the Premier League had become a theatre where black players were regarded first for their ability, with their nationality being a secondary, general point of interest. Didier Drogba is remembered at Chelsea for the goals he scored and the leadership he provided; Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke were one of the best-loved striking duo’s in Premier League history; Emmanuel Adebayor took his chance to shine at Arsenal and put Togo on the footballing map; Demba Ba recalled Alan Shearer at his best for one season at Newcastle. From London to Manchester to Newcastle, all the country’s Premier League clubs have been a proud racial melting pot that has now been upturned and spilt by the claims of the past two seasons.
It is against this history of progress and integration that the claims of Evra, Ferdinand and especially Mikel should be considered, rather than by relying on evidence of witnesses from Chelsea who have been shown to be open to peer pressure, persuasion and constructing clear falsehoods in the face of their legal obligations. If Chelsea’s Ashley Cole created John Terry’s evidence at the prompting of club secretary David Barnard, and never actually heard what he claimed to have heard, then how can the FA possibly take the word of Ramires – a representative of the same club and with an uncertain grasp of English to boot – at face value in determining the fate of Clattenburg? Rather, the FA should consider that the undeniable racial content of the first two cases came in the context of a fierce slanging match that went back and forth between opponents and encompassed insults no less heinous because of their non-racial nature. Patrice Evra brought up Luis Suarez’s sister’s pussy before the latter rebutted by calling him black in an aggressive manner. Anton Ferdinand cruelly reminded John Terry that he “shagged his mate’s missus”, provoking the much-maligned Chelsea captain to unleash that notorious line of racist abuse. In Ferdinand’s estimation, that brought it “to another level” but what is the difference between one expensively remunerated star sexually slurring another’s family, the other remarking on his skin colour, or the first hitting back on the way he looks? The hurt felt is mutual, the sense of players losing their heads in the heat of battle shared. Suarez’s wife has wryly observed how she “doesn’t like or recognise the Luis that plays football on the pitch”, the man transformed into a competitive snarling beast who was once driven to bite an opponent on a football pitch in Holland. Arsene Wenger and Robin van Persie received the brunt of the worst abuse from the last matchday weekend when Arsenal played Manchester United. Wenger was jeered as a paedophile, while allusions were made to Robin van Persie as a rapist and a “Dutch Jimmy Savile” (referencing the deceased British celebrity who has recently been exposed as a serial child abuser). As recently as last week, a Facebook friend saw fit to mockingly describe Wenger as a “paedophile” in his Facebook status, displaying the kind of detached cruelty that is all too often euphemistically passed by as “banter” in masochistic English society. Some of the chants I have heard directed against Wenger by Stoke’s male, female and very young fans through the television set turned the ears blue at a family hour while a group of friends returned from a Chelsea-Barcelona match in 2006 numbed by the ninety minutes of sexist, vitriolic abuse they had heard directed at the away side. As usual, Wenger caught the gist of it when he described the abuse he faces, such as calling him a paedophile, as just as “racist” as that received by Evra or Ferdinand. Rather than segregating the abuse received by them as somehow worthy of greater attention and action, black Premier League stars must accept that they are part of a slightly different problem and one which the evidence of the Evra and Terry cases suggests they have in part contributed to. It is a problem that antagonistic managers like Jose Mourinho must also acknowledge contributing to in the past, by stirring up hatred and bile between opponents to an extent that loosens the restraint and better civil tendencies of those in the stands.
For black Premier League stars to instead claim that racial abuse of them in a competitive theatre is removed from the vicious abuse of all types that is regularly traded on the pitch by players (including them) and between fans is a false distinction that recklessly sabotages the good work that has been done in the Premier League over the last fifteen years and remains to be done at the grassroots level and in lower leagues. It is in these areas, far away from the spotlight of the national press, where black players are not so protected by their fame or their worth to their clubs, that racism remains a tangible issue. The young black teenager who is racially abused by a white opponent on the field of play is subjected to a form of psychological bullying that can leave long-term scarring and should be warded away from every growing child. It is in the lower leagues, where comments are not picked up by the newspapers or television cameras, and ethnic diversity perhaps not so prevalent, that a culture of systematic racial abuse and targeting of black players without the means to resort to expensive legal vindication available to an Evra or a Ferdinand may persist from the stands and from white players. Yet by presenting an exaggerated picture of the state of racism in the Premier League, and developing a dangerous precedent of crying wolf every time an insult is pointed in their direction, black players in the Premier League have stirred up old hostilities and diverted attentions from the battlegrounds of racism truly in need of help. Just last week, a Chelsea fan taunted Dany Welbeck by brandishing a monkey gesture at him and it was difficult not to imagine that Evra, Ferdinand and Mikel had brought this about by feeding the beast.
Even more culpable than the players, however, are a lascivious media who have recognised the potential inherent in the racist saga to sell papers and abused their prerogative to the hilt in doing so. Racism is now first and foremost in everyone’s minds as a result of their incendiary coverage, and this has led to an increase of hatred, deepening divisions and hardening of positions. One feels for those black players in the lower leagues now, as a result of how the media has knowingly precipitated a backlash against all black players by egging their Premier League counterparts on to report players and officials for the smallest of crimes and thus making them appear as troublemakers. This reputation will attach itself to black players in the lower leagues who have to put up with far worse, as the papers that cover the Premier League in such misleading fashion are also read by fans of lower-league teams. As with the Chelsea fan who taunted Welbeck, it will be hard to escape the feeling that any increase in racial hostility in the lower leagues resulted from the media’s mischief-making and was evidence of irresponsible behaviour by black Premier League stars to their quietly suffering lower-league counterparts. Better the media train their sights on racism in the darker corners of the footballing hierarchy that are more in need of their strong public voice, and stop devoting pages and pages of coverage to the travails of stars such as Terry and Ferdinand in an insidious way that engenders greater hatred.
The football media has always been aware of their need for narrative to burnish the weekly match reports, while calmer heads have always been able to keep sight of the real issues behind their need to script stories and talking points. The hyperbolic flashpoints this season have already swung between diving – again, an issue inflated to unbelievable heights – and now racism. Yet this one has the power to generate real racism where there previously was none, across all England’s leagues and footballing pitches, and for consciously creating these conditions they perhaps deserve the strongest rebuke of all. Meanwhile Mark Clattenburg is said to be lurching from bewilderment to the point of serious breakdown, and psychological counselling has been cited as something that may be needed before he is fit to resume his job. He also faces a police investigation by the Met prompted by the Society of Black Lawyers that is based on evidence provided by footballers who have been shown to be willing to lie in court, making it ludicrous to imagine that a man could be criminally convicted on the back of their word – or that of a headstrong player still learning English who might have heard wrong. This is what the worst tendencies in football’s culture – ranging from a self-serving, misleading media who have encouraged black players to believe they are being wronged, to clubs willing to lie in courts to protect their own interests, to leading players who have forgotten that the real struggle for racism could be affected by their eagerness to see others fall, to fans willing to use this crisis as a free pass to take their abuse even further than before – have led to: the picking apart of a potentially innocent man, publically doomed to be judged before any verdict is found, and the breaking out of real hostility and enmity across the sport and the vast cross-sections of society it affects.