This series of features aims to explore the “beautiful game” of football and discuss the aspects you perhaps don’t hear about too often. The underbelly of the world’s game, the things that need addressing for it to truly deserve its beautiful nickname, in three parts.

The following will be aimed at likely the most well discussed of our features triumvirate, the one with the most publicity but likely the one with the most work to do, particularly in today’s political climate, racism.

Football in this country has never been particularly politically correct, whether you think about the antics of Paul Gascoine, the gritty heyday of hooliganism in the 80’s/90’s, the tabloid obsession with who Premier League players may be cheating on their wives with, or the “banter” you see today on social media, football in this country has always had a bit of an errant, edged underbelly.

It has often been said that people use weekend football as a form of catharsis, for them to let loose their weekly frustrations in 90 minutes of pure, tribalistic furore, screaming their opinions at a player, subjecting them to their venom and bile until their throats ache. They do this to let out any frustrations they may have after a busy, stressful work week, it’s an outlet. But where should we as a society and as a sport draw the line? Have we created a truly unsolvable problem?

Marcel Desailly was the victim of racist abuse during his spell with Chelsea by pundit Ron Atkinson in 2004.

The fight against racism in the English game has been a hard-fought one for decades. Former Everton forward Dixie Dean experienced racism in the 1930’s, John Barnes in the 80’s, Marcel Desailly in the 00’s all the way up to Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster in 2018. However, this is the fight campaigners signed up to fight against and the battle has seen progress, there has been a culture shift towards accepting the multiculturalism of football, surely it can’t be the world’s game if everybody playing it is white.

Dixie Dean was subject to racist abuse from a fan in the 1930’s, one of the earliest cases of football related racism in this country.

SOCIAL MEDIA

The “banter” within football from players and fans is often perceived as innocent and just another part of the game but one particular forum for this “banter” has seen a huge rise over the last few years. With the introduction of football twitter, the world of fan/player interaction changed forever.

The line between banter and abuse is getting more warped as each year passes, we continue to redefine what we as a society class as acceptable behaviour. Football is no longer the wilderness in this respect, with each high-profile case of inherent abuse the legislators grip on this side of the game tightens.

You’ll never see a banana thrown on the pitch in the English game again, your chances of hearing a stand erupt into a chorus of monkey chants are slim to none. This aspect of the game has progressed because of such legislations. The game has been evolving, legislations like the Football Offences Act were introduced to put a stop to harmful behaviour at football matches, and its criminalisation of such action has been widely successful in achieving this. 

However, two giant step forwards were followed by one step back and the threat of totally undoing the hard work done up to now is looming. All this work is being undone, it’s being undone in under 140 characters.

Over the last few years abuse aimed towards footballers or football fans has well and truly moved from the terraces and onto the wilderness of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Anonymous abuse is the bread and butter of the idiotic, immature and hateful on social media. Hidden behind avatars of famous footballers and boasting usernames like @SilkySalah, @HeroicHazard and @Pogb00m is an undercurrent of racist abuse aimed anonymously at players, coaches and other fans.

Nobody seems to be safe from abuse, nearly any tweet by a footballer is followed up with abuse of some sort from somebody somewhere in the world. Ranging from abuse at the colour of somebody’s skin, their religion, their family etc.

Arguably the biggest target of this abuse is Manchester City star Raheem Sterling, days after he sealed a big money £49 million move to Manchester back in 2015, the England international posted an image onto 

Former professional footballer Anwar Uddin believes that social media has acted almost complimentary to the traditional way racism was conveyed previously. “I think it has given it another platform, obviously beforehand people that were overtly racist, it would come up in conversation, what people say and do. I think it’s given people another opportunity.”

Anwar, who played in England for his entire career, most notably with Dagenham and Redbridge was the UK’s first ever British Asian to captain a football league side and was also the first professional Bangladeshi player in the English game, he believes that to combat racism on social media more policing needs to be done to make sure people use platforms more for their intended purpose and less for directing abuse. “I don’t think people realise how much impact one tweet or Facebook post has. You could be a person with minimal followers and you can say something which you feel is an opinion and it’s crazy how far and wide it can go. I think it has given some people the platform to be very opinionated and open with their opinions and I think it’s important that we have a handle on that and make sure people use social media in the right way.”

Anwar experienced a great deal of racism while trying to come up in the English game in the early 2000’s, “growing up, coming through the grass roots system it (racism) was quite prevalent unfortunately. But then even when I went into the professional game I thought that would make it a more professional environment, but you did still hear things, there were still behaviours that were inappropriate, it was disappointing. But a lot has changed now, I would be more confident about a young player going through the system now in terms of what he had to do, but from a personal perspective it was something that you had to sort of deal with, because if you didn’t you were in the wrong game. It was about being positive, thick skinned and figuring out the reason you’re doing this is because you want to achieve, be successful, so unfortunately you have to endure some behaviours to get to where you want to get to.”

High profile cases of racism at the very top of the game, to the uneducated may seem like they might be decreasing since the summer of 2011, when the huge cases of Luis Suarez and John Terry’s racist abuses of Patrice Evra and Anton Ferdinand respectively clung onto the back pages of all the papers and sports news around the world for the better part of the summer. While it might be true that cases of that magnitude haven’t materialised in England since, the amount of smaller scale cases have risen exponentially.

In its 2017/18 mid-season study, Kick It Out, footballs equality and inclusion organisation, found that reported incidents of racism in association football had risen by around 59% from the research of a year prior.

Osei Sankofa, Kick it Out’s Education Officer said, “Racism is still out there in various forms, some more obvious than others. Mezut Ozil is a really good one because usually racism is focused on black players but Mezut Ozil’s case is due to his duel heritage, so I think that’s a good example of alternative forms of racism, Romelu Lukaku spoke during the World Cup about his Congolese heritage but playing for Belgium and the dichotomy that exists there. There’s always incidents that crop up. Mo Salah’ who was an outstanding player in the Premier League last season, as much as he was lauded for his feats on the pitch he received a lot of racist abuse on social media.”

WHAT IS BEING DONE

Charities like Kick It Out work tirelessly to educate people of the dangers faced when racism is allowed to grow. Their main goals outlined are to help promote awareness of the benefits of equality, inclusion, diversity policies and practices in football as well as to expose and challenge all aspects of discrimination and unfair practices and conduct at all levels of football.

Osei, a Charlton academy graduate who went on to have a long running career in the football league before beginning his work as Kick It Out’s Education Officer see’s education as the only way to address the issues of racism in the game. “(Kick it out are) working with the Premier League, the Football League, the FA, the PFA, we’re working to educate current players in particular, working to educate grass roots youngsters, people in schools, grass roots football teams. Education is a key theme for us, looking to empower the next generation of future football leaders, making sure they get a strong education academically but also growing up being aware of all the issues around equality and inclusion within the game.

WHAT CAN BE DONE

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Looking forward, what can be done to combat this rise in racist abuse. What can we do to stop future generations growing up in a world where racist abuse online is the norm? To stop us from taking backwards steps in our development as a civilised country and a civilised sport? Can English football ever eradicate racism from its game?

Maamun Hajmahmoud from Kick It Out said “when you look at what we’ve done in the last 25 years I think it’s absolutely amazing the way that the whole culture has changed in this country but to say that racism In this country will ever be eradicated is very very hard to say, it’s highly unlikely because there will always be ignorance, there will always be people that have that stigma in their mind that will allow racism to exist. So, it will be very hard to completely eradicate it, not that it’s not our goal but to say that certain instances that we have nowadays, would we have them 10/15 years down the line? I’d like to think we wouldn’t do.”

Looking ahead the English game needs to cooperate, it need to establish new leaders, out with the old guard and in with the new, young faces. People who have grown up in a world free from institutional racism, in a world educated by hard working, dedicated people like Osei, Anwar and Mamuud. Once the next generation of minds sits on the big shiny thrones of world football, then can we have hope that maybe the final assault could be in sight. Football’s great unwinnable battle could, maybe start to look achievable.

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