Sat, 2 December 2023

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We’ll beat racism in football by working with supporters

3 min read

We must connect and collaborate with fans and football’s governing bodies if we’re to kick out racial abuse, writes David Lammy MP

Soul-destroying. That’s how Haringey Borough FC’s chairman described their FA Cup tie against Yeovil Town when racist abuse forced the players off the pitch. Losing the rescheduled game 3-0 was just one example, the manager tells me, of just how badly the incident affected them all. To put it bluntly, they haven’t recovered.

I still remember when John Barnes had a banana thrown at him during the Merseyside derby in 1988, and when Cyrille Regis was sent a bullet in the post when he got called up for England.

We make ourselves feel better by saying that things aren’t as bad as they used to be. But this simply serves to undermine the seriousness of the problem today. If anything, racism in football has become more prevalent; the proliferation of social media has made it easier to target players with vitriol.

In November, following a Liverpool-Man City game, online abuse aimed at Virgil can Dijk and Raheem Sterling increased by 27,000%. In the context of rising race-related hate crime – which grew 30% in the year following the 2016 Brexit referendum – some fans have been emboldened by a resurgence of jingoistic rhetoric.

The FA needs to get serious about punishments and enforcements

As a nation, we’re good at condemning loutish incidents of racism. But we’re less good at reconciling ourselves with endemically racist structures. We’re less good at condemning the more articulate forms of racism spouted by our politicians, which is why Gary Neville stood out when he courageously bucked the trend. And we’re less good at coming out strongly against forms of racial bias in our own media.

The Sun was quick to praise Raheem Sterling for hitting back at racist fans in Bulgaria. They’re less willing to acknowledge their own relentless character assassination of England’s most prominent black footballer. It wasn’t long ago they headlined Raheem as “Prem rat of the Caribbean”.

Unless we’re honest about this, we’re unlikely to escape the endless loop of moral outrage; radio phone-ins barely finish before the next incident has occurred, by which point absolutely nothing has changed.

The FA needs to get serious about punishments and enforcements. Ultimately, the Premier League is about money. If games were called off and ticket revenues were diverted to anti-racism campaigns, things would change.

We also need to reduce anonymity so that it’s easier to keep offenders out of stadiums, via effective and equitable use of retina and fingerprint technology.

We also need to look more seriously at the kind of representation in these organisations. How seriously can racism be taken by the FA, Uefa and Fifa if most of their senior members do not know what it’s like to experience it?

Most importantly, we need to stop treating fans as part of the problem and start treating them as part of the solution. It was a group of Chelsea supporters who reported some of their own fans for racially abusing Son Heung-min last month.

This is important; messages sent by supporters, rather than top-down campaigns initiated by the upper echelons of the football hierarchy, will be seen less as a PR exercise and more as an act of resistance.

This is intimately tied to the need for greater fan ownership of clubs; anti-racism efforts should be developed and implemented by the fans themselves.

Contrary to the stadium announcements, racism isn’t an interference. It’s a pervasive force that defines people’s daily lived experiences. And defiance is strongest when it’s coordinated by those who have a stake in victory.

When fans are in danger of losing the beautiful game altogether to racism, they should be given the means to fight for what is theirs.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

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