AS FOOTBALL settles down to the news that two of its stars are being disciplined over racist epithets hurled on the field of play, it could seem like a return to the bad old days, when clear racism was a regrettably commonplace part of the game. The decision by an independent regulatory commission of the Football Association on Tuesday night that Liverpool forward Luis Suarez should be charged with misconduct for racially insulting Manchester United defender Patrice Evra came with an eight match ban and £40,000 fine, pending any appeal. With yesterday’s advice from the Crown Prosecution Service that the Metropolitan Police should charge England and Chelsea captain John Terry for a racially aggravated public order offence – in response to his alleged disparaging racial comments to Queen’s Park Ranger defender Anton Ferdinand during a Premier League match – the two incidents could start to sound like signs of a worrying trend.
It’s important to remember that the game has made huge strides in removing overt racism from football stadiums over the past two decades, and prompt disciplinary action like this is as much a reflection of that advance as a sign of backsliding. This has been achieved both through work with players and fans as well as close consultation with the football authorities. The most unsavoury elements of terrace culture associated with the 1970s and 1980s, such as monkey chanting and banana throwing, are thankfully a thing of the past. Today, a perpetrator is often likely to be shouted down and brought to book by his or her own fans.
Since its inception in 1993, Kick It Out has always been very clear; black players are there to be booed just as their white counterparts are. The distinction, however, needs to be made between abuse because of poor performance and when it’s meted out due to a player’s race, religion or nationality. As football fans we are all guilty of a short fuse when our heroes play poorly, particularly when we’ve paid for the pleasure. It has and always will be an inextricable part of the game. If a player performed below par, then he’ll expect the boos that will come his way. But racist abuse? That’s when the line has been crossed, and it’s as true on the pitch as in the terraces.
As football’s landscape has changed, so too has the scope of abuse levelled at players and supporters. In recent years we’ve had to bear witness to incidents of homophobia and Islamophobia. The campaign’s latest film, The Y-Word, tackled the subject of anti-semitism with the help of England stars Frank Lampard and Ledley King.
There are tensions in society, slowly building, which are permeating back into the game. The battles many thought had been won are still there to be fought. Suggestions the game is returning to the bad old days may be somewhat premature. But vigilance is key. And, as always, supporters have a key role to play.
Danny Lynch is head of communications for Kick it Out, football’s equality and inclusion campaign.