Soccer has become the fault-line for European racist prejudices

One expects the great issues of Europe to be played out in Brussels, or perhaps Strasbourg, or the national capitals, possibly even on the streets, but certainly not in the football stadiums. Yet, that is what is happening on race. You would barely know it. Football is not accorded that kind of significance in national life: it’s just a game. Political commentators do not fulminate about it, editors think in terms of the back pages and politicians largely ignore it. But that is not a reflection of the true reality, just their myopia, and the blinkered way in which we tend to perceive politics.

The most striking incident – when racism in football became headline news – was in November at Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium when tens of thousands of Spanish supporters made monkey noises at England’s black players. This followed an extraordinary outburst by the Spanish manager, Luis Aragones, who had referred to Thierry Henry, one of the most sublime talents in the game, as “that black shit”. The under-21 match between the two countries the night before had also been scarred by racist chanting.

These were only the most recent incidents, the ones that finally and belatedly captured the headlines. Mass racist chanting against black players has been a feature of international games in Slovakia, Macedonia and many other countries. Henry was the object of racist chanting in an Arsenal game in Greece. Porto fans engaged in monkey chanting against Chelsea’s black players. England fans engaged in mass racist abuse during the Euro 2004 qualifier against Turkey. Countless other examples go unreported.

It is not surprising that football has become the public crucible of European racism. The traditional arenas of politics are the preserve, for the most part, of polite society, of the great and the good, Westminster being a classic example. Apart from the far right and the xenophobes – Italy’s Umberto Bossi is a case in point – overt racism is rarely heard in the corridors of traditional politics (covert racism, on the other hand, is widespread and endemic). In fact, there are hardly any mass activities in which people are able, and feel free, to vent their prejudices in public – to behave in a crowd as they might in a bar. Football is unique in Europe: the mass male pastime bar none. The scenes at the Bernabeu and elsewhere may be disgusting and disturbing, but they are saying something important about the European psyche.

In racial terms, football brings Europe face to face with the worst outrages of its own history. No continent has suffered more at the hands of Europe than Africa – first through the slave trade and then a colonial subjugation whose effects remain profoundly baleful to this day. In a league table of European racial prejudice, those of African descent will most surely be at the bottom, the darker the more lowly, as Shaun Wright-Phillips – the darkest and most abused English player – was reminded at the Bernabeu.

Yet footballers of African descent have increasingly come to dominate the sport over the last few decades, beginning with Brazil’s 1958 World Cup-winning side. Herein lies the magic of football as a sport. Since anyone can play it, however destitute they are, football offers – more than any other cultural activity – a level playing field, and therefore a huge opportunity for the world’s poor. Football was once almost exclusively white, even in Brazil: now it is primarily a game played by those of colour. And so football has become the fault-line for Europe’s prejudices, the public stage where Europe’s hubristic past meets its modern-day nemesis – as expressed in great artists like Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry.

The events in the Bernabeu marked a new moment in the struggle over racism in football. This was Europe’s most famous stadium, the home of the world’s most famous club. Never before have such scenes been witnessed by so many people across the continent nor been so widely commented upon. The refusal of the Spanish authorities to acknowledge that anything untoward had happened was a poignant reminder of the depth of ignorance that pervades our continent when it comes to racism: for most, racism is still seen as both “natural” and “acceptable”. Last month, though, the Spanish football federation finally buckled and announced that Aragones’ outburst against Henry would be subject to disciplinary action, though still no date has been fixed. Meanwhile, he has described Reyes, Arsenal’s Spanish international, as “a Gypsy”: the man is a rich tapestry of racial prejudice.

The English response to Bernabeu was unprecedented. Previously, broadcasters and journalists have largely colluded in racism by failing to comment or report upon it. This time John Motson, the BBC match commentator, was moved to express outrage: the first time I can recall someone in his position doing so. And it was clear from the response from many in the game that there is a new intolerance towards overt racist behaviour. The extent of this shift in England, though, should not be exaggerated. The structures of English football remain deeply and shockingly racist.

A quarter of the players in the Premiership may be black or mixed-race, yet not a single manager. Football is a multiracial game, but only on the pitch. In the boardroom (just one non-white), among management staff (2% non-white), administrative staff (4%), coaching staff (6%), and in the stands, Premiership football is much whiter than the population at large (ethnic minorities comprise 9%). There is only one, albeit entirely predictable, exception: a fifth of the “other staff” – catering, turnstiles, cleaning, et al – are non-white. Even worse, every single member of the FA board, comprising 14 people, is white and, likewise, every single one of its 92-member council. This is a game that has seen a racial revolution on the pitch, and yet off it football remains the redoubt of the white man.

There is a not so subtle racial stereotyping involved in all this. Black people can perform, can play, but they can’t administer or run things: this is the gift of the white man. This mindset is replicated in virtually every walk of life, from the House of Commons to universities, from the City to the Metropolitan police. How many white people have ever been managed by, or been accountable to, a person of colour at work? One doesn’t need to resort to an expensive statistical report – or a readers’ survey – to know the answer: hardly any. What makes the situation in football so outrageous is that it has become such a black sport on the pitch, thereby making the off-pitch situation even more anomalous.

It is one thing to watch and admire the skills of Patrick Vieira or Rio Ferdinand; it is another thing altogether to be answerable to them, to take orders from them, to get the proverbial bollocking. That demands an altogether different kind of respect and recognition, and a quite different relationship. White people the world over are used to giving orders to those of colour, not receiving them.
The brutal fact is that, since the Premiership was established in 1992, there have only been two managers of colour: Ruud Gullit and Jean Tigana. What chance a Marcel Desailly (captain of the French World Cup-winning-side and also the object of Ron Atkinson’s racist outburst) or a Sol Campbell doing the same? Precious little, one would guess.

Nor is this problem of authority confined simply to the clubs or the FA. Take the television studio. The commentators and pundits are overwhelmingly white. You watch black players on the pitch and then listen to white experts giving us the benefit of their views. It is a form of apartheid: black on the pitch, white in the studio. There is Andy Gray and Richard Keys on Sky, John Motson, Mark Lawrenson, Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker on the BBC. ITV is little better. The TV studio is a white man’s club. Just occasionally we are treated to a face of colour, a Chris Kamara or Garth Crooks or Ian Wright – or John Barnes on Channel Five. And the same goes for newspaper sports desks. It is difficult to find a black or brown face among the serried ranks of white men.

Do not be deceived by appearances – football remains profoundly and inexcusably white, a reflection of the prejudices that define our society.