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Racism is fuelled by old enmities

2012 February 17
by Paul Vallely

I am a Manchester United fan. That is not a boast, or a confession. It is a declaration of interest which may be crucial to your ability to pick a clear path through the thorny thicket of what I am about to say. My subject is racism and why a force, which was generally assumed to be in decline in the world of football, seems to be undergoing an unpleasant recrudescence.

There has been a lot of it about recently. The then captain of the England team, John Terry, was charged with allegedly abusing a black player on the pitch, a charge Mr Terry denies. There has been a rise in tensions between the supporters of Liverpool and Manchester United over charges, which the football authorities found proven, that the Liverpool striker Luis Suárez racially abused the United defender Patrice Evra. There have been a number of arrests of fans at various grounds for racist shouts and acts  recently.

It is clear that racism can lie dormant for literally ages and then reappear from nowhere. Thousands of Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox people in the Balkans can testify to that in a region where decades of peaceful neighbourly co-existence were blown apart by explosions of racist polarisation in the 1990s.

But stamping out racism in football will be harder than in other spheres of life, I suspect, because football actually encourages the same mindset and psychological dynamics on which racism thrives. That is clear from the tribal my-team-right-or-wrong partisanship which football inspires and which is evident in any ground whenever the ref blows his whistle for a penalty.

That is not to offer excuse or attenuation. Part of the process of civilisation involves separating acceptable from unacceptable loyalties. Yet the modern culture of football supporting displays the same warping tendency as racism in projecting onto an individual the supposed characteristics of the group or place to which they belong.

United fans have a particular antipathy for those they dub Scousers which goes deeper than a long history of football rivalry. Racism, some would argue, is different. To stigmatise someone for being black – or Jewish as Chelsea fans traditionally do with Spurs supporters – is to tap into stereotypes which have historically been used to justify repression, slavery, exploitation, persecution and extermination. Yet there is something pretty venomous about the way that Manchester fans routinely chant “Murderers” to Liverpool fans to revive memories of the Heysel tragedy in which a stampede by Merseysiders led to the deaths of 39 Italian supporters.

There is about all this an unwillingness to let go of ancient rivalries which, as Celtic and Rangers show, can reach deep into atavistic enmities and hatreds. To concede this is not a defeatist admission that nothing can be done. Rather it is to underscore that racism and rivalry in football is a more dangerous and profound issue than a few casual insults.

It requires us all to be far more self-conscious about separating heart and head than was the leader of the Liverpool Supporters Club the other day. He claimed that when Mr Suárez refused to shake the hand of Mr Evra before the last game culpability attached more to the snubbed player than to his insulter.  It was a preposterous twisting of logic to find a pretext on which to defend his man

What the game needs, if racism is truly to be cauterised from football, and from wider society, is the self-conscious assertion of intelligence over such blind loyalty. I seem to remember there is a useful saying about motes and beams which goes exactly to that point.

Church Times


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