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Blowing the whistle on racism in English soccer

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  February 13, 2012 12:38 PM

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BRISTOL, England — Towards the end of last year, college football was shrouded in controversy following allegations that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused eight young men, and that school officials may have covered up the incidents.

On the other side of the pond, English soccer has also experienced great controversy recently, but of a different nature: racism.

John Terry, an English soccer player for Chelsea Football Club, was forced to stand down from his position as captain of the English national soccer team earlier this month amid accusations he racially abused an opponent during a match, which is potentially a crime under English law. This episode has reignited an issue that many in England thought was a thing of the past — and, like the Penn State scandal, exposed how the lucrative nature of sports can create an overpowering incentive to look the other way.

In order to understand the significance of the current race row that is engulfing English soccer, one must appreciate that racism represents one of the darker chapters in the history of England’s national game. Its nadir was in the 1980s when black players were subjected to monkey chants, at times even by their own supporters, and racist banners were unfurled in many cities. One of the most iconic images of English soccer is that of John Barnes, the Liverpool winger and one of soccer’s first black superstars, back-heeling a banana that had been hurled at him during a match against Everton as fans chanted "Everton are white".

English soccer has certainly become more tolerant since then, largely thanks to campaigns such as Let's Kick Racism Out of Football and the increasing number of black players in the sport — over 25 percent of professional players today in England are black. Indeed, it is a source of pride in England that black players have become so integrated into the sport. Nowadays racist chants are rare and when they are heard, they are quickly condemned. Several black players have also captained the English national team, the highest honor for any English player.

This season, however, this wound that many thought healed, has been ripped open. The current controversy has not come, though, from the fans but from the players. It began bubbling under the surface when Patrice Evra, the Senegalese-born Manchester United defender, accused the Liverpool striker, Luis Suarez, of racially abusing him during a match between the two teams in October of last year. Suarez was ultimately suspended for eight matches and fined around $60,000. (Suarez was back in the news on Saturday when he refused to shake hands with Evra before a match — leading to calls for John Henry and Tom Werner, the Red Sox owners who also control Liverpool, to intercede more forcefully, followed quickly by an apology.) The issue of abuse towards black players was then brought into the national conversation just a week after this incident during a match between Chelsea FC and Queens Park Rangers. Television cameras caught John Terry, the Chelsea and England captain, appearing to mouth racially abusive language towards Anton Ferdinand a Queens Park Rangers defender.

Terry has since protested his innocence. "I thought Anton was accusing me of using a racist slur against him," he said. "I responded aggressively, saying I never used that term." He now faces criminal charges of racist abuse and is due to appear in court in July. As a result, he was stripped of the England captaincy earlier this month until the case is settled (a contentious decision in itself and one which led to the resignation of Fabio Capello, the manager of the English national team). Terry is a controversial figure in soccer — this is the second time he has had the captaincy taken away — but this furor has led many in England to question the progress of racial integration in English soccer. Statistics do suggest that there is still an undercurrent of racial prejudice in the sport. Why, for example, are there only two black managers in the entire English soccer league of 92 teams? Rio Ferdinand, the Manchester Untied defender and Anton Ferdinand’s older brother, described earlier this month how he felt he had been “fooled” about racial tolerance in the sport. “I thought that era was gone,” Ferdinand said. “It seems like it was just put to one side for a while.”

Among the officials responsible for preserving soccer’s integrity, there is a shocking ignorance of the racism that infects the sport. Shortly after Terry was accused of his racist slur, Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, claimed “there is no racism” in soccer. His proposed solution for any offensive words exchanged during a match was for players to shake hands and “…at end of match it's forgotten.” Realizing the controversy he had stirred with his words, Blatter apologized two days later and reaffirmed his commitment to stamping out racism in the sport.

The controversy that Terry has started has exposed English soccer’s dark underbelly. The sport’s greatest problem is the fact that abusive language has been tolerated over the years as part of banter amongst fans. This permits language that would be unacceptable in any other social context to be spoken by fans at soccer grounds, in the same way minority fans at a Boston Bruins game last year were subject to racist taunts that seemed out of an earlier era. At many a Tottenham Hotspurs game, a team with a large Jewish fan base, anti-Semitic chants from opposing supporters can often be heard. Arsène Wenger, the French manger of Arsenal Football Club, has been exposed to songs calling him a pedophile for years due to his policy of developing young players.

Much in the same way as the appalling behavior at Penn State was brushed under the rug because of the money its football program generated, English soccer has too often ignored something that could tarnish its brand and hurt its position as the most watched sports league in the world. The English Football Association must, though, do more in order to combat the sport’s intolerance; it has already led to at least one casualty. In 1998 the only openly gay player in the history of English soccer, Justin Fashanu (who also happened to be black), committed suicide in part due to the torrent of abuse he received from the terraces, and even from his own family, following his admission.

The English Football Association may end up looking to America for a solution to its problems. Towards the end of last year there was an idea floated that English soccer should adopt some form of the ‘Rooney Rule’ that is in place NFL and requires teams to at least interview minority candidates for senior coaching vacancies. This sort of affirmative action would certainly be a positive step in the on-going process of integration into a sport that unites so many in England. Make no mistake, English soccer has come along way since the 1980s, but there is still much more to be done.

AP Photo/Nick Potts: Chelsea captain John Terry, right, exchanges words with Queens Park Rangers' Anton Ferdinand, center, during a soccer match in October.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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