Saturday, November 19, 2011

Racism in Sport

South Africa-born former England cricket all-rounder Basil D'Oliveira has died at the age of 80. Fifty years ago South Africa was in the grip of Apartheid and Basil, by far the best cricketer in that country was, as a 'cape-coloured', not allowed to play cricket officially. He wrote to the English Cricket commentator, John Arlott, in green ink to ask if it was possible for him to play in England. Within 2 years he was an England international. He finished with a Test batting average over 40 an unusually high average for an all rounder.

Eventually Basil was a major catalyst for the ending of apartheid in South Africa, still the greatest success for the anti-racist movement worldwide.

This all sets the current 'crisis' about racism in football.

In a sense the racism battle has already been won. When I was married in 1967 I caused a little bit of squirming by choosing an ethnic Indian as my best-man. He was actually a Kenyan whose parents had left Goa, a former Portuguese colony on the west coast of India. He was also a Christian.

In Switzerland Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president has upset some English footballers (and David Beckham) by suggesting that racial insults on the pitch should be forgiven and forgotten with a handshake at the end of the game. Blatter has since apologized and withdrawn his statement. It goes to show that it is unwise to comment on a situation that you are not really part of.

FIFA was already in bad odour because of widespread belief that delegates within the inner circle are irredeemably corrupt and by a silly refusal to allow English and Welsh players to wear embroidered poppies on their shorts for international matches played over Armistice weekend.

There are two current issues in the English Premier League under consideration. In one the Liverpool player Soares, who is Spanish is accused of calling the Man U, French player, Patrice Evra, a 'nigger', though this may be a language problem between French, English and Spanish. I did watch this match, though, and felt that Saurez spent the whole match trying to niggle Evra including with foul tackles from behind which went unpunished.

The other case involves John Terry who reportedly was abusive to Anton Ferdinand, the brother of former England captain Rio Ferdinand. Both the Ferdinands are of mixed race and I don't thing it is the racial content of the insult that is the greatest offence of it. Terry reportedly used the 'C' word to describe Ferdinand. Terry is a London lout with a history of bad behavior; it runs in his family. Since both Terry and Rio Ferdinand are reaching the end of their careers and have been vying for the England captaincy, one can easily see where the tensions lie.

I suspect most readers, unless vehement supporters of the various clubs that the players are attached to, will regard this as a storm in a tea cup. I remember the days when fans used to take inflatable bananas to football matches to imply that black players were descended from monkeys. Things have greatly improved in England, though no doubt there are still places where racism persists. The number of black faces that one sees on television and in parliament suggests that the great prejudice about race that did exist when I was a boy has largely been dissipated with succeeding generations.

There is no doubt that prejudice does still exist. In London we are seeing a trial of two white guys who allegedly murdered a black man at a bus stop. That was 19 years ago and at the time the London Police Force was declared to be 'institutionally racist'.. With large waves of ethnically different immigrants, particularly in London, since then, one might have expected the situation to get worse. Yet it is difficult to make that judgement honestly. Police are prejudiced against criminal and large numbers of young black men are criminals, as the London riots in the summer have confirmed. It is clearly wrong to racially stereotype people, but then it is probably inevitable. Stopping and searching old white (or black) ladies would be a waste of police time. Topping and searching young men in parts of East London makes more sense if applied to white youths (there are very few black youths there) but in West London, most young men are Asian and in South London, Afro-Caribbean or Nigerian.

In Scotland the main divide is sectarian between Catholic and Protestant. This too spills out onto the football pitch. The recent fine of £34,000 that EUEFA imposed on the Bulgarian Football Association for chanting abuse at black England footballers at a EUEFA qualifier demonstrates that Racism has not been eliminated from football, but it has been reduced by a great deal while I have been watching the game.

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