After England’s most recent international was marred by yet more racist chanting, Print Screen Editor Jonathan Chern reflects on the situation of racism in football.
There were a number of revelations last week when England played Bulgaria in the latter’s capital for a Euro qualifying match. After the game had to be paused in the first half and a group of people who modelled themselves as neo-Nazis were kicked out, racist chanting continued well into the second half. That the match wasn’t abandoned for the wellbeing of England’s black players suggested that UEFA’s system for dealing with racism lacked courage in implementation.
Both during and after the game, ITV’s commentary and punditry team seemed under-equipped to articulately and intelligently talk about the racism on the night. The only insightful opinions came from former Arsenal striker Ian Wright; predictable, since he was the only person of colour whose views were represented on the program.
“THAT THE MATCH WASN’T ABANDONED FOR THE WELLBEING OF ENGLAND’S PLAYERS SHOWED THAT UEFA’S SYSTEM FOR DEALING WITH RACISM LACKED COURAGE IN IMPLEMENTATION”
Much of what was lacking was any critical self-reflection on the state of racism in football. Assertions that this would not happen in England were made, and England fans ironically sang ‘God Save the Queen’ in response to the racist chanting. Unsurprisingly, journalists and fans were quick to link racism in an Eastern European country with English exceptionalism. It goes without saying that the UK, who had an empire until not long ago and continues to deny reparations to those millions it exploited, has a mature discourse on racism. When the England fans sang that Raheem Sterling ‘put the ball in the racist’s net’, one Tweet went viral: ‘Did he score an own goal?’
Indeed, it is an unfortunate point, but Sterling and other players like Marcus Rashford don’t only encounter racism in international matches in majority white countries. Racism is rife within the clubs they play for in the Premier League.
“PLAYERS LIKE STERLING AND RASHFORD DON’T ONLY ENCOUNTER RACISM IN INTERNATIONAL MATCHES IN MAJORITY WHITE COUNTRIES, BUT IN THE PREMIER LEAGUE ITSELF“
A few weeks ago, Man City and Portugal playmaker Bernado Silva tweeted two images next to each other. One was of his teammate and French World Cup-winner Benjamin Mendy, and the other was of the Conguitos logo – a Spanish brand of chocolate-covered peanuts. The logo presents a peanut with characteristics of a racist caricature – naked, with over-emphasised bright red lips and bulging eyes.
A number of things happened after this. Benjamin Mendy declared that he didn’t take offence, Bernado Silva tweeted (after being forced to delete his earlier tweet) ‘Can’t even joke with a friend these days…’, and to make it all worse Man City manager Pep Guardiola came out in defense of Silva.
A question of ignorance
There’s much to talk about here: internalised racism, and the phenomenon of passing off racism as ‘just a joke’ – but I want to focus on Guardiola’s comments. “He speaks four or five languages – that is the best way to understand how open-minded he is”, said the manager, before following it up with “One of his best friends is Mendy,” and continued to say that the racist cartoon did look like Mendy.
Pep’s defense was tactless and embarrassing, and showed how little the footballing icon – often cited as the best manager in football – understands racism or the place of power relations in society.
Pep’s ignorance to historical trends of racism can be that: ignorance. But when it comes months after Pep stood up for Raheem Sterling when he was verbally attacked by fans at Chelsea, another view comes to light. The unequal response to racism when it concerns his own players shows that he places his players above the issue of racism.
This philosophy of Pep’s is clear (watch All or Nothing: Man City) and is treated as noble in the footballing world, but the responsibility of a manager to the media wellbeing of their player stops when the player themselves is racist.
Man City’s pretence to be countering racism is insincere, but while opposing fans may use this to criticise City, a large number of clubs have the same problems. City’s main rivals, Man United, recently released a statement condemning the racism both Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba received from their own fans. But does United genuinely condemn racism when Ed Glazer, one of their owners, donated $98,000 to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and another $250,000 towards his inauguration? In other words, how can the club claim to be on the side of Rashford and Pogba when its ownership props up the systems of oppression which cause fans to have racist attitudes?
“PEP’S UNEQUAL RESPONSE TO RACISM WHEN IT CONCERNS HIS OWN PLAYERS SHOWS THAT HE PLACES THEM ABOVE THE ISSUE OF RACISM“
Silva has been charged with a six-match ban by the FA, but he is continuing to play whilst his appeal is being processed. It’s hard to say what effect this will have, as the decrease in racism in European football over the past decades has more come from a decrease in overt racism in European culture rather than attempts by footballing institutions to kick it out.
A deep and pervasive problem
In the case of Silva, the issue goes far deeper than Man City, and we should look at the fact that an image such as the Conguitos logo can be freely printed in Spain. As if it wasn’t enough that the brand’s name literally means ‘little people from the Congo’, Conguitos’ advertising has historically relied on racist characterisations – in one advert showing a central African tribe speaking gibberish before being eaten as the snack, and in another advert presenting Tina Turner and Stevie Wonder as the peanuts themselves. Much of the conversation of the Twitter incident has ended at Bernado Silva’s culpability, without talk of how a brand whose entire marketing strategy is entirely racist can exist.
Racism, whether we like to admit it or not, is internalised by our culture, and presents itself everywhere, both at the top (owners of the clubs) and bottom (the fans) of society.
Recently Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku was subjected to monkey chants in a game against Cagliari, and on Italian national TV a pundit made a joke that he could be distracted with bananas. When Lukaku complained about his treatment on Twitter, Inter Milan fan group Curva Nord wrote an open letter to the football player describing the racism as a mark of respect, saying that such chants were made because the opposition fans felt threatened by his footballing ability.
“THE QUESTION OF ‘HOW DO WE KICK IT OUT?’ IMPLIES THAT THERE IS AN IDEAL WHERE FOOTBALL CAN EXIST SEPARATE TO THE RACIST WORLD AROUND IT”
The fact that fans decided for themselves to defend racism, and that white fans decided it was up to them to decide what is and is not racist, speaks volumes on the subject. In the letter, it was written ‘You have to understand that Italy is not like many other European countries where racism is a REAL problem’.
It would be easy to slap a fine on the club or ban certain fans from attending. Though the latter should be done, it is not enough. Racism does not emerge in football. The question of ‘how do we kick it out?’ implies that there is an ideal where football can exist separate to the racist world around it.
With Bernado Silva and those fans from Curva Nord, society needs to address the worrying issue that in both cases white people were unable to identity obvious and unrepenting racism.
“The real power in the world today is in the media, not politicians,” Pep Guardiola said when defending Raheem Sterling from racist abuse last year – insight that might be true. There is certainly responsibility on behalf of sports journalists and the industry at large in normalising racist attitudes of black athletes.
The media’s contribution
For half a decade, Raheem Sterling was used as a punchline in British tabloids on both front and back pages. His immigrant family were mocked, his working class background was mocked, his lifestyle decisions were condemned whilst the same of his white teammates were praised; a pattern we’ve seen thousands of times when white writers are appalled by upwardly-mobile people of colour. Since last year, when Sterling blamed the racial slurs he received in a game on the media’s demonisation of him, the press has turned 180 degrees.
The fickle nature of the media of attacking and sticking up for black athletes has been laid bare. Yet, if the talk that emerged after the England vs. Bulgaria game last week showed us anything, it’s that few lessons have been absorbed by the industry. There is an absolute inability, confusion and fear when it comes to the football industry making any attempts to dissect its own racism issue. Last weekend across all Premier League grounds (and even updated onto FIFA 20) were banners saying ‘No Room for Racism’. This is symptomatic of the FA’s constant attempts over the past decade of telling everyone it is sorting out its racism issue without asking any meaningful or pertinent questions to the football community about how to combat racism.
“THE BEAUTIFUL GAME IS NOT INHERENTLY RACIST, BUT THE INSTITUTIONS THAT ARE INVOLVED IN FOOTBALL ARE“
The beautiful game is not inherently racist, but the institutions that are involved in football – the clubs, the broadcasters, the backpages of tabloids and broadsheets, FIFA and the FA, the logic of the transfer markets and how pundits speak about players – are the racist product of a racist culture. It’s perhaps dismal to say, but we must acknowledge that the onus for kicking racism out of football is not on any player or fan or manager or chairperson, but on a concentrated effort by our wider culture to understand itself better.