This report was initially written by Lasana Liburd for the Trinidad Express newspaper and published there on 25 November 2004:
It was not, as Birmingham City chairman David Sullivan pointed out, the ‘crime of the century’. The British Soccernet website claimed that the Blackburn Football Club, the site of the latest racial incident in the British game, harboured just two racist fans.
Some Blackburn supporters claimed there was just one.
In any case, Sullivan insisted that it was no big deal and suggested that Trinidad and Tobago’s Dwight Yorke, effectively his employee, should have ignored it rather than confront the offending patrons.
Unanimously, the British media insisted that the monkey gestures and racist taunts aimed at the T&T star and Birmingham striker on Sunday were ‘small’, ‘isolated’ and, most importantly, ‘nothing like Spain’.
Last Wednesday in Madrid, thousands of Spanish fans made sickening monkey chants whenever a black Englishman touched the ball. Spain was quickly branded an ‘uncivilised nation’ by the British press and Professional Footballers Association (PFA) chief executive Gordon Taylor insisted that the English team should have walked off the field.
Tellingly, he did not say how many fans need to be making racial jibes before a team could head for the showers in good conscience.
Perhaps there were too few in Yorke’s case; which, of course, was an isolated one. Like Ron Atkinson’s gaffe, for instance.
Atkinson—who ironically coached Yorke at Aston Villa in the early ‘90s, where he sometimes ordered players to punch and kick Yorke to toughen him up at training sessions—infamously referred to former France captain and World Cup winner, Marcel Desailly, as a ‘f**king, lazy, thick nigger’ in the ITV television studio after a Champions League match this April.
The microphone was still on, though, and ‘Big Ron’ was asked to resign and complied.
It was not Atkinson’s first racial jibe as a television commentator. He once referred to a Cameroon player as brainless during the 1990 World Cup. His producers quickly chided him but Atkinson got in the last word during the interval. “Well if his mother is watching up a tree in Africa…”
Once more, his comments were inadvertently broadcast live in some countries and ITV received a complaint, but Atkinson remained on staff. That Ron Atkinson, they chuckle, never knows when to keep quiet.
There are other recent cases.
Dundee and Trinidad and Tobago defender Brent Sancho was called ‘a black bastard’ and hauled out of a taxi last October; but after a fight ensued, Sancho and not his racist assailant was thrown into a cell and charged. (Sancho was later acquitted).
Fulham striker Luis Boa Morte was called ‘a black c**t’ by Everton forward Duncan Ferguson in a Premiership match last season and reported the matter to the English FA.
But the FA dismissed the case for lack of evidence and the papers suggested that Boa Morte was a mischief-maker, which prompted a flood of abuse for the Portuguese striker by visiting fans.
“There were people on my team who heard it and there were people on the Everton team who heard it too,” said Boa Morte, “but they didn’t want to say anything. I had two or three really low weeks, I felt gutted.
“Why would I have taken it to the FA if the thing didn’t happen?”
Another one-off, I suppose. But how many isolated incidents do it take before the relevant authorities accept that there is a problem?
Racist chants at the Millwall Football Club last season; English international defender Jonathan Woodgate convicted for assaulting an Asian student in a nightclub; Newcastle and Welsh striker Craig Bellamy racially abused an Asian door man… A 2003 University report, supported by the PFA, found systematic exclusion of minorities at community clubs and ‘extremely poor’ numbers of non-whites in managerial and staff positions at football clubs.
It might not amount to much for some influential figures like Sullivan, but it means a great deal to the rest of us. It certainly means a great deal to me.
Racism in football, even the vile stuff we observed when Jamaica-born ex-England and Liverpool star John Barnes was routinely pelted with bananas, is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Manchester United star Rio Ferdinand recalled that he would be stopped and questioned roughly ten times a week by the police when he drove across London from Peckham to West Ham for training as a teenager-barely seven years ago.
Trinidad and Tobago and Portsmouth goalkeeper Shaka Hislop remembered when, at Newcastle, a group of youths screamed racial insults and ran towards him in a threatening manner at a gas station. Then, they recognised him and subsequently begged for autographs.
So what of blacks who are unprotected by celebrity status in England?
Those still referred to in some quarters here, as ‘darkie’, ‘coloured’ and ‘negro’—and those are the affectionate references.
It is not like Spain—or at least what we saw of them at that shameful international match—that is undisputed. But this does not necessarily mean it is significantly better.
The Race Relations Act, passed in 1976, makes it an offence to racially abuse or assault someone, which can result to the offender being expelled from a bar or sporting ground or, in violent cases, jailed up to 14 years.
While the British Government and anti-racists groups have made progress in silencing racists, there is the feeling that insufficient headway has been made in converting them. By and large, it has allowed passive racism to fester.
On Saturday, I was ejected from a train while returning from an afternoon in Birmingham. The train conductor suggested—rather vaguely—that I had stolen or fraudulently acquired my rail pass, although I had the relevant travel documents on me.
After a lively debate, in which I refused to pay a fine, I was told that we would stop at then next station to locate a policeman to which I readily agreed. Once we had both disembarked, the conductor hopped back on the train, though, leaving me at a desolate and extremely cold stop.
I have already arranged a meeting with Central Trains to pursue the matter, but it was not an isolated case.
Once, the Portsmouth Football Club secretary, when trying to describe me over the telephone to an official enlisted to take me towards the players’ dressing rooms, curiously explained to his listener: ‘you will know him when you see him’.
But, generally, you are made to feel an outsider without words.
Like the young white couple I attempted to help as they struggled to keep their stalled car from rolling down a hill in the early evening.
On seeing my approach, the lady left her male companion with the weight of the vehicle on his back and sprinted to the other side of the car. He gesticulated frantically for me to come no closer.
“No thank you, mate!”
Perhaps Barnes summed it up best last week when he was approached for comment on the Spanish scandal and surprised the journalist by insisting that England was in no position to take the moral high ground.
“Because we don’t hear it any more we think we’re getting rid of racism,” Barnes told the London Observer. “Please, let’s not all believe we’re much better in this country. The biggest thing for me is the hypocrisy of the people who were around 10 or 15 years ago when this was going on in English football.
“Why weren’t they saying anything then? Is it just politically correct to be doing it now?”
Silence, he explained, does not mean harmony.
“When you talk about kicking racism out of football,” he said, “people automatically assume you are talking about on the terraces and on the football field.
“But all racists have to do is keep their mouth shut for 90 minutes and they’re fine. It’s good that people are talking about it, but it’s how they’re talking. Let’s not believe that we are much better in this country.”
Another former Arsenal player and present youth team coach, Paul Davis, revealed that he was overlooked for promotion at Arsenal for the third time last September. Instead, Steve Bould was given the post although he had five years less experience and was markedly less qualified than Davis.
Davis, when he questioned the snub, was told by Arsenal that he did not have the ‘right personality’ for the job.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I obviously can’t say that it was racism because it wasn’t spelt out to me like that, but it wasn’t done properly. There were no appraisals, no proper information on candidates; basically it was one person making the decision.
“But [racism] is the hardest thing to accuse anyone of because how are you gonna prove it?”
Racism is scariest off the football field.
An undercover BBC investigation found ‘shocking and widespread’ racism at the Greater Manchester Police force last October, where policemen were taped boasting of victimising ‘pakis’ and ‘niggers’. Yet Home Secretary and British MP David Blunkett initially slammed the BBC for their ‘covert stunt’ before quickly back-pedalling after condemnation by anti-racism groups.
The BBC documentary was in response to a sharp rise in racially motivated crimes over the past decade. It is the same monster of racial prejudice that reared its head at Blackburn on Sunday.
Sullivan would have us look the other way.
Yorke did not!