Saturday, January 14, 2012

My Thruppence Ha'p'ny on Racism in Football

Málaga FC Undergo Late-Night Sensitivity Training
I didn’t know whether to post this, or merely to tuck it away as a collection of odd thoughts that I might research, analyse, and turn into something worth reading at some point in the future. At the moment it’s more a collection of questions to myself, and if he so wishes, to the reader.

Luis Suárez, a Uruguayan who plays football for Liverpool, has been punished for making racist remarks to Patrice Evra, another football. Punished quite severely, in fact, on the grounds that he made repeated references to Evra blackness in a nasty tone of voice.

It was alleged that he had called Evra a ‘nigger’, (if we’re going to talk about the word I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t exist), but it then appears that he hadn’t used that word, but a Spanish appellative which is only very broadly similar in its semantic charge and the exact meaning of which in the context has not been properly identified. (In Spain in general, to describe someone as ‘negrito’ is quite harmless and inoffensive, though it probably would be if used as a vocative. How it is used in downtown Montevideo I have no idea).

The fact that Suárez insulted Evra in some way does not seem to be in doubt, but, since Evra had just kicked him in the ribs it’s hardly surprising that he had a go at him. (I have frequently pointed this out to people who say that Spanish football fans are racist because at such and such a ground they made monkey noises at such and such a player. There are, and have been, quite a few black players in Spain, though nothing like the number there are in England, and it has not been unusual to see a black player on the field for over twenty years. Some of them were born here. When fans make monkey noises at a player they aren’t picking on him because of his race, but because they don’t like him. There may have no real reason for disliking him, but it isn’t just because he’s black, not in my experience.)

A young lad at Manchester Utd Oldham also complained recently that a spectator repeatedly shouted racial insults at him when he approached the touchline. It would be nice if the players didn’t have to put up with abuse from fans but football isn’t like that. Also, the player, who appears to have been generally upset by it, and I don’t blame him, has just announce to the entire football world that he’s easily wound up. He may well regret it. And it won’t just be the spectators. In the give and take of the penalty area during free kicks and corners, all kinds of things are said, because the referee can’t hear them, and he only sees the resulting punch from the one who loses his cool under provocation.

Football has far bigger problems of behaviour than a few specific insults which are deemed, for some reason, to be worse than the others that fly about constantly. Football fans are no longer the thugs they were for thirty years, until the football authorities were finally persuaded to do something about it before the whole money-spinning circus got itself closed down, but the fact remains that there is a great deal of menace on the terraces, shouting and singing abuse is still considered a privilege you buy when you pay for your ticket, and parts of many towns are effectively closed down on Saturday afternoon so the crowds can be escorted to the match. The fact that home and away supporters still need to be separated by fences and police lines tells you all you need to know. The problem has not gone away, and it’s a very serious one. Only tradition allows football to continue to do this. I don’t think it’s even the money.

On the field, players constantly try to injure each other, to get each other punished and banned from games by faking fouls, they provoke each other verbally, as I said above, whenever they think the referee can’t hear, they claim goals, penalties, corners, fouls and even throw-ins that they know didn’t exist with an extraordinary passion. The clubs and the media conspire to create an atmosphere close to warfare before any big game, and then deny any responsibility for the resulting violence.

All of these problems are far greater than a few cross words between players in the heat of the moment, but there are risks involved in addressing them, so it’s much easier to pick on a few relatively unimportant but uncontroversially bad things, and declare them to be the root of everything that is wrong with the game.

Much as I enjoy football, I realized long ago that it should have been given an ultimatum to get those involved in it to behave like decent human beings, or, after a period of grace, be abolished. It was never going to happen, of course, and the business of Suárez and company is just the latest attempt to pretend they are doing something by tinkering around with details.

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