The headlines concerning the racist abuse meted out to Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips last night have neatly obscured the England football teams very poor showing against Spain yesterday. However, the racism on display does merit some comment I think; certainly more than the England team’s performance, which I am happy to gloss over.
In many ways the actions of the crowd were a throwback to fifteen years ago or more, when racist chanting was commonplace in England. There have been predictable calls for the Spanish Football Federation to gets its house in order, and for FIFA and UEFA to take strong action. There is, implicit in this, a sort of pride amongst English commentators at how racist chanting has been tackled in this country, and how successful the action taken by the authorities and the “Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football” campaign has been here. I wonder, however, just what the Spanish can do to prevent this sort of thing. Luis Aragones, the Spanish manager, could certainly do more; a statement condemning the chanting would be a step in the right direction, and he certainly hasn’t set a good example to the fans with his well reported comments on Thierry Henry. But if the problem is as widespread across Spain as is suggested by Carlos Ferreyra Nunez, co-ordinator of Spain’s “United Against Racism” group, then the odd stupid comment by the national manager is unlikely to make much difference. The problem surely is a cultural one.
What should the Spanish do then; should they take a leaf out of the English book? If so, it is useful to remember what the situation was like in this country a few years ago. Personally, I don’t recall hearing any racist chanting when I first started going to watch Manchester City many, many years ago, at least from the home fans. Were City fans a remarkably tolerant lot? Not at all. You certainly heard racist comments, as you do everywhere, then as now. There was, however, always the sickening sound of the crowd hissing whenever we played Spurs; to the uninitiated, I should explain that Spurs are identified by some as being a Jewish club, and the hissing (scarcely believable as you may find it) was a reference to the gas chambers, to the holocaust. So no, City fans were far from perfect; they just didn’t make monkey noises.
Still, it came as quite a shock one day when I went to watch Newcastle United at St James’s Park. I was at a boring conference in Gateshead, and by day three I was so fed up I decided to bugger off to watch Newcastle play Sheffield United in a top of the table clash in the old old Second Division. I was stood in the famous Gallowgate End, and I think my mate and I were the only two people who didn’t chant every time Brian Deane or Tony Agana touched the ball. It seemed as if the whole crowd was a seething pit of racial hatred.
How was this situation turned around? Where has all the racism gone? Have the FA, the “Lets Kick Racism…” movement and the Government managed to persuade the Newcastle fans of the evils of racism? They probably haven’t done any harm, but the biggest catalyst for change with the Newcastle fans was probably the signing of Andy Cole. It is pretty silly making monkey noises at the opposition when you have you own black player. This is probably why racist chanting was never a problem at Man City, even though Anti-Semitic hissing was; City were in the vanguard of introducing black players into their team, so the bigots just never got a chance to throw their bananas. Dave Hill’s wonderful book “Out of his Skin” chronicles how John Barnes’s transfer to Liverpool miraculously rid them of their racism problem. He is also particularly good in commenting on how complicit the press were; how, with the odd notable exception, racist abuse was just ignored back in the dark days, a sharp contrast to the moral hand-wringing we see today when the press are happy to criticise the Spanish. Interestingly, Nunez makes the same complaint about the current Spanish media “generally sidestepping the racism issue”. The signing of John Barnes by Liverpool also showed their Merseyside rivals Everton in sharp relief at the time, and for a while they were considered one of England’s most racist clubs. They probably weren’t, they just didn’t happen to have any black players; but Earl Barrett amongst others changed all that.
I am not sure, then, as to what lessons the Spanish can actually learn from the English example, or how they should tackle their own problems. Of course racist chanting should be condemned, that goes without saying; but as I have stated, I am not sure quite what effect well meaning anti-racism campaigns actually achieve.
There may be specific Spanish problems, such as Nunez’s allegation that domestic managers fuel “the problem by giving tickets to passionate ‘ultra right-wing’ fans”, which may need to be tackled. But ultimately football is just a part of society: if there is racism in society, then there will be racism on the terraces.
And it would be complacent to think that we have solved all of our problems in this country; racism is still about, it just doesn’t manifest itself in the chanting of the crowd. Personally, where I sit to watch City, in the rarefied atmosphere of the East Stand Upper Tier, you barely even hear the sick chants of “Munich ’58” anymore, thank God; but then you don’t hear much chanting of any kind anymore, since the move to all seater stadia. The clamp down on hooliganism in general has also resulted in some of the nastier elements of society remaining outside the ground, so overt racism inside the ground is probably reduced as a consequence. But racism is still about in our society, it is just that to some extent we have moved on; Kosovan, Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers are more likely targets for racial hatred these days.
But for now, let’s all concentrate on the failings of the Spanish, eh? For one thing, it may all be of assistance to London in its Olympic Bid; there have already been comments questioning how Madrid can be awarded the 2012 games after the behaviour of their fans. This is great news, following on, as it does, from the New York bid supposedly being damaged because the American TV networks didn’t cover the Paralympics. It is beginning to look like two down, two to go; now all we need is for Russia to force all female athletes into being housewives who are chained to their domestic appliances, and for France to make it illegal for homosexuals to play sport, and that should deal with the Moscow and Paris bids. Then hey presto; the field is left clear for London 2012, home of the first politically correct Olympic Games.