Racism is poisoning football

Recent incidents have shown the corrosive effect on the game

It’s been a depressing couple of weeks for football. During the most recent international break, in March, a number of English players were subjected to racist abuse during the nation’s 5-1 Euro 2020 qualification win over Montenegro in Podgorica. Raheem Sterling, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Danny Rose were all subjected to monkey chants from the home fans during the game, with Rose in particular bearing the despicable and depressing brunt.

The events of the game lead Rose to declare, in comments widely reported, that he “just can’t wait to see the back” of the game of football. This was an incredible and harrowing thing to read, from a 28-year-old star for club and country.

“I’ve had enough,” Rose said. “At the minute, how I programme myself is that I just think: ‘I’ve got five or six more years left in football and I just can’t wait to see the back of it.’ Seeing how things are done in the game at the minute (…) It’s just – whatever, isn’t it? I just want to get out of it.”

Rose has suffered racist chanting before, notably in an under-21s game away to Serbia in 2012, where he was again taunted with monkey chants throughout the game. “It happened in Serbia,” continued Rose, referencing that previous game, “so I thought there was a possibility it might happen again and it did. I looked up straight away in the first half and I know the exact time it happened. It didn’t affect my game. I’m a big boy now and I know that three points are obviously not the most important thing when you’re going through something like that but I just wanted the team to get three points so that we could move on.”

That any athlete should be expected to try to perform through such disgraceful and inhuman jeering is indescribably sad, and demonstrates the progress yet to be made, even as we prepare to enter the third decade of the twenty-first century. Sport is a reflection of society, and scenes such as these mirror the increasing toxicity of global public discourse and the evaporation of empathy in our political life. While sporting bodies cannot, and are not expected to, eradicate racism, they all too often do not appear to treat it with suitable seriousness.

“He had told his family not to come see him perform at the tournament, fearing they would be subject to racist abuse.” 

The Serbian Football Association were fined €80,000 for that 2012 incident, while Montenegro face a potential partial stadium closure if found guilty at a UEFA commission meeting in May. Neither punishment does much to deter racist fans from making their voices heard, nor does either represent that those who govern the game are committed to dealing seriously with an issue that makes players in the prime of their careers eagerly anticipate the day that those careers end.

“Obviously, it is a bit sad [to feel like this],” said Rose, “but when countries only get fined what I’d probably spend on a night out in London, what do you expect? You see my manager get banned for two games for just being confrontational against [referee] Mike Dean. But yet a country can only get fined a little bit of money for being racist. It’s just a bit of a farce at the minute. So that’s where we are at in football and until there’s a harsh punishment, there’s not much else we can expect.”

Rose had previously gained significant press attention in the build-up to last summer’s World Cup in Russia, when he told the London Evening Standard that he had told his family not to come see him perform at the tournament, fearing they would be subject to racist abuse. Russia had been fined £22,000 by FIFA, football’s governing body, for racist chanting in a friendly game against France just three months before the tournament.

“I’ve told my family I don’t want them going out there because of racism and anything else that may happen,” said Rose. “I don’t want to be worrying, when I’m trying to prepare for games, for my family’s safety. If anything happens to me, it wouldn’t affect me like it would if my family had been abused.”

“My Dad’s really upset. I could hear it in his voice. He said he may never get a chance again to come and watch me in a World Cup. That was emotional, hearing that. It’s really sad. It’s just how it is.” The resignation in Rose’s words is emblematic of the current state of the game’s relationship with racism, with slap-on-the-wrist punishments contributing to an impression that it is an unavoidable ugliness, perpetrated by a minority, and something best ignored if possible.

“The racist jeers intensified.”

These sentiments were freshly evident following the March international break, upon the resumption of club football. This time the venue was Italy, and the victim the 19-year-old Juventus sensation, Moise Kean. Kean, who has recently become a full Italy international, and even goalscorer for his national side at such a tender age, was taunted by Cagliari fans during a recent away game for his club. Scoring the second goal of the 2-0 victory, Kean celebrated by standing defiantly, arms outstretched, in front of the home fans. The racist jeers intensified.

Following the game, Kean’s manager, Massimiliano Allegri, told the assembled press that his player “shouldn’t have celebrated in that manner. He is a young man and he has to learn, but certain things from the crowd also shouldn’t be heard.” Hardly the strong backing of a teenager who had just been subjected to vile abuse for simply existing. Worse was yet to come, however, from Kean’s teammate, the veteran Italian centre-back, Leonardo Bonucci, who told Sky Italia, “there were racist jeers after the goal. I think the blame is 50-50, because Moise shouldn’t have done that and the [Cagliari fans] should not have reacted that way. We are professionals, we have to set the example and not provoke anyone.” Bonucci’s comments, claiming the blame was equal, were met with justified shock and dismay.

Raheem Sterling, who had been the victim of racism on numerous occasions before the recent game in Montenegro, took to Instagram to mock Bonucci’s comments. It was only in December that Chelsea suspended four fans from attending the club’s matches, after they allegedly racially abused Sterling during Manchester City’s 2-0 defeat to the Londoners. Following the incident, Sterling said, again on Instagram, that he “just had to laugh” as he didn’t expect any better. There are clear echoes here of Rose’s comments, with both players seemingly resigned to the fact that dealing with such behaviour is another part of their football career. It’s no wonder Rose can’t wait for it to end.

For his part, Sterling pointed out how the media contributes to this problem, citing The Daily Mail’s biased coverage of young black footballers and the way they spend their money. Stories such as Sterling’s buying of a new house for his mother were portrayed negatively, as obscene displays of wealth, whereas young white players are championed for the very same actions. Hypocrisy such as this is undoubtedly prevalent within the media more generally, and there are myriad factors which feed the hateful ideology of racial supremacy. It is not sport’s place to solve these problems, but all of those involved in the game must commit to treating racism more seriously, and doing everything which can be done to eradicate it from arenas around the world. Until then, it will be less and less surprising when victimised players, who cannot even count on the backing of their teammates and managers, long to leave the game behind.

Dean Hayes

Dean Hayes is a former Sport Editor of Trinity News. He is an English and History graduate.