How English football broke racial barriers

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Racism is the problem. English football may have stumbled on a solution. The game’s contribution to fighting racism in Britain has been “absolutely crucial”, Trevor Phillips, chairman of the UK’s Commission for Racial Equality, told me recently. What worked inside the game would probably work outside it, because 20 years ago racism in English grounds was almost as bad as it gets.

Phillips, who is black, tells a familiar story: “I’ve been a Chelsea supporter for nearly 45 years now. There was a long period where I couldn’t go because I’d be the only black person in the Shed [end]. And there was a time when darts throwing was one of the great sports in the Shed.” Phillips pointed at his head: “’Excuse me, here I am: bull’s-eye!” 

In the early 1980s, when Paul Canoville was Chelsea’s first black player, some fans stayed home in protest if he was in the side. Several English teams were then all-white. After John Barnes, a black player, scored a great goal for England in Brazil in 1984, England fans on the flight home abused the Football Association’s chairman for allowing “sambos” in the team. Such examples could be multiplied endlessly.

Few people complained. In a London pub in 1993 I watched an England game on television. One person made monkey noises each time Barnes got the ball. Each time, the man’s friends laughed. Had anyone complained, let alone asked a policeman to arrest the man, the response would have been: “Where’s your sense of humour?”

Today things are different. Three Blackburn fans were recently fined and banned from grounds until 2009 for shouting racist abuse. Racist players are fined and shamed.

Phillips dares to go to the Shed. He says: “Now I can take my daughters. That makes a huge difference. And being able to support a football club is in itself an integrationist factor. I belong to something, which doesn’t define me by my colour.”

The question is how English football has achieved this. Yes, it has had laws and campaigns against racism, but so have France, Italy and the Netherlands, yet the situation in these countries ranges from terrible to as bad as Spain, where England’s black players were abused by supporters during a recent friendly. The biggest match in the Dutch calendar, Feyenoord-Ajax, features thousands of Feyenoord fans chanting things like, “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas chambers”. Dutch-Moroccan players are routinely abused as “bag snatchers”. Last October, after the black player Blaise N’Kufo ironically applauded fans who had sung “cancer ape” at him all match, his own coach condemned him, an opposing player called him “the dumbest footballer I have ever experienced”, and the Dutch FA rebuked him. Clearly laws and campaigns are not enough.

What English football managed, apparently without even thinking about it, was to make racism seem unpatriotic. Whenever England’s black players were abused during a match abroad, in Spain or Slovakia, their white team-mates complained to the media. They weren’t being liberals. They were just standing up for their mates. But in doing so, they were defining racism as a foreign custom. “We don’t do that stuff,” is how Phillips phrases the message. This message reached children, the main target audience for anti-racist propaganda, as people form racist views young.

Most anti-racist campaigns condemn racism as bad, or as the first step to another Auschwitz. These aren’t effective messages, because many kids want to be bad, and have never heard of Auschwitz. Making racism seem unpatriotic is a better strategy, because patriotism is a powerful force.

The England team is now helping create a colour-blind Englishness. In David Winner’s new book about English football, Those Feet, a British Asian describes watching an England match in a pub: “The opening bars of ‘Three Lions’ floated across the bar, and within seconds we were a sea of smiling faces and linked arms. Whites, Asians and blacks joined together, tunelessly and passionately, in this modern anthem to England’s dreaming. This, I thought, must be how it feels to be patriotic, to be English.”

The coming British election campaign will feature regular bashing of gypsies, asylum-seekers, and future immigrants by mainstream politicians. But at least the politicians now almost never bash ethnic minorities with British passports. For that, football deserves a little credit.

simonkuper@ftnetwork.com

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