Football's foul play is a big problem

November 24, 2016 22:35

It hardly needs stating in a Jewish newspaper that racism is one of the most odious aspects of so-called civilised society. And perhaps the saddest of racism's manifestations is that which occurs within sport - the activity devoted to harnessing human aggression to the concept of fair play.

Of course, racism in sport does not exist in isolation. It flows from the same primeval swamp of ignorance in which all its other forms originate. But it is more blatant than most, subsisting as it does in a climate of baying crowds and cultivated rivalry - nowhere more so than in the planet's biggest sport, football.

More blatant and yet more tolerated. In July, the Israeli footballer Yossi Benayoun was met with antisemitic chanting from an 85,000-strong crowd in Kuala Lumpur, where he was playing for Chelsea in a "friendly" match against a Malaysian XI. Other Israelis, such as Ronnie Rosenthal and Avram Grant, have suffered similar abuse, primarily from British fans. Israel itself has all too often witnessed the spectacle of Jewish supporters yelling vile invective at Arab footballers.

Such incidents are routine and are, in any event, dwarfed by the amount of racist abuse directed at black footballers, of whom there are many thousands across the world. This is currently a hot topic. And the heat is being felt by two of football's least alluring personalities.

Rarely have the nation's back-page hacks been so united in pursuit of their prey as in their chase after John Terry and Sepp Blatter - respectively the England captain and FIFA chieftain - over one's alleged racist comments and the other's clumsy apologia.

Even now, 'gas chamber' hissing directed at Jewish clubs like Tottenham goes unpunished

And while all of us who are whiter-than-white (so to speak) can bask in the warm glow of righteous indignation, we should remember that not only have the calls for Terry's head come even before a verdict has been delivered on his allegedly racist utterance, but that his and Blatter's apparent failure to understand racism is a mere sliver of the offensive way one of them runs the game and the other plays it.

For years, Blatter has failed to deal with, or himself sparked, a number of controversial issues including those concerning corruption, attitudes towards gay and female footballers, and technology. Terry is an unsympathetic leader, frequently to be found at the head of an arrogant herd of players surrounding and menacing the referee. So why does Blatter still run FIFA and Terry still captain England?

And why are we so shocked and surprised by racism in football? This is just one of many rotten aspects of the modern game. Defenders of violent play point out that footballers are mostly young men engaged in a high-action, high-pressure, contact sport. The forgiving phrase, "the heat of the moment", covers a multitude of sins. In which case, shouldn't this also excuse a casual, racist remark among the many extreme insults and obscenities that characterise the average professional soccer match - and which used to be reasons for dismissal?

Modern football's obscenities are not confined to the verbal kind. At a time of economic pain, when many supporters struggle to afford the price of admission to football grounds, and to secure even dead-end employment, isn't there something hideous about Manchester City laughing at losing millions of pounds every week and Premier League players earning fortunes most bankers can only dream about?

And if footballers are allowed to spit out bile (not to mention actual sputum), why not the spectators? And here lies the real racist problem. Even now, primitive "jungle" chants at black players, and "gas-chamber" hissing directed at "Jewish" clubs like Tottenham and, in Holland, Ajax, largely go unpunished.

Racism in the game is now being addressed more comprehensively by such commendable initiatives as Kick it Out. However, some efforts at combating antisemitism are simply too comprehensive, bracketing the proud, positive chants of "Yids!" by Tottenham fans and "Joden!" by Ajax supporters with their rivals' repellent Holocaust taunts.

So let's not pat ourselves on the back too eagerly for identifying single instances of racism in football. This will not automatically encourage overpaid and under-educated players to show respect and restraint.

And not just players. We have too long indulged those practising the "profession" of football at all levels. This needs tackling - not kicking into touch.

November 24, 2016 22:35

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