I was ten years old the first time I heard racist abuse at a football match. Sitting next to my Dad in a half-empty stand on a bright sunny day, the fare being served up in front of us was typical of the Unibond League in the mid-90s. Conventional wisdom said that application was valued over quality at this level, but despite the graft put in by the home side, they were 3-0 down by the hour mark and the game had run away from them. Late on, a chance fell to the host’s #9, who blazed his effort over the bar. A few seats down from us a fellow supporter, late-thirties, puce and overweight, leapt from his seat to provide feedback to the semi-professional footballer, “You useless black cunt!”
By now we’d been attending our local team’s home matches for half a season. It wasn’t unusual to hear home fans barracking their own players, however counter-intuitive that seemed to my young brain. What I hadn’t heard before was skin colour being used as some kind of qualifier for an insult. It instantly jarred. The player in question had quickly become one of my favourites, owing to his brace in the first live match I ever attended, and so any criticism thrown his way was met with my internal disapproval. This felt different however. The spite in my fellow fan’s voice provoked a physical reaction in the pit of my stomach.
I didn’t speak out because, well, I was ten years old and as much of a coward as I am now. Nobody else spoke out either. For context, this game took place in a market town in the East of England, in a constituency that would later record the largest leave vote in the country for the 2016 EU Referendum.
In the hundreds of games I’ve attended since, at grassroots, non-league, and professional level, across the UK and in Europe, I haven’t encountered another incident of racist abuse. I, and perhaps millions of others, might have been fooled into thinking it was something that no longer happened in this country. Racism on the terraces seemed to belong to the distant past, to the times of Cyrille Regis, Lawrie Cunningham and Brendan Batson. Abuse of BAME players became something that happened elsewhere; in Spain, Italy, and Eastern Europe. We’d chalk up the accusations against the likes of John Terry, Luis Suarez, and Emre Belözoğlu as one-offs, and point to Ron Atkinson as ‘part of the old school’ in a bid to maintain the charade, while simultaneously airing hand-wringing documentaries about the climate of racism in Poland, Ukraine and Russia ahead of major international tournaments.
“We’ve got to get our own house in order. There are things going on in our own country that aren’t correct. Until we do, I think we should stop firing off those things elsewhere”
Gareth Southgate, speaking ahead of the 2018 World Cup
Fans directing Islamophobic chants towards Egyptian striker Mido, anti-semitic songs at Tottenham Hotspur fans and former Chelsea and West Ham manager Avram Grant, and even, in the case of Ji-Sung Park, singing culturally insensitive songs towards their own players, were marked out as ‘the noisy minority’, the ‘few that spoil it for everyone else’. The deeper the football authorities have buried their heads in the sand, the louder that so-called minority have got. In their annual summary, campaigners for equality in football Kick It Out have seen reports of discrimination rise season-on-season since 2011. In 2018/19, these reports rose by 32%, with a 42.7% rise in reports of race-related discrimination on the previous season. Racism in English football is reaching critical mass.
The debate has been pulled into sharp focus in the last few weeks after a slew of incidents on social media in which footballers missing penalties have been the target for racist abuse from their own supporters. Reading’s Yakou Meite, Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham and Manchester United pair Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford have all been singled out by Twitter users, with the Pogba incident in particular leading to a long-overdue moral panic from the club, the FA, players and pundits alike.
“Give enough social media users enough keyboards and they will eventually write the works of Shakespeare, but it’ll take eons because so many of them will be busy revealing themselves to be dickheads.”
Daniel Storey, Football365
In the week following the targeting of Pogba, Kick It Out joined forces with Manchester United and arranged to meet with Twitter representatives with a view to thrashing out a plan to protect BAME footballers from online abuse. Meanwhile, the social media site has reportedly drawn up a plan to ‘monitor the accounts of fifty high-profile black footballers’ in order to get a grasp of the size of the issue. Whether this gesture proves to be as tokenistic as it sounds – surely a more proactive plan would send a stronger message to users – remains to be seen, but given the platform’s chequered history in combating hatespeech, this latest guarantee promises to do little more than pay the problem lip service.
Elsewhere, players and pundits have put forward their own suggestions as to how the worlds of football and social media can team up to counter online abuse, with Pogba’s teammate Harry Maguire donning his New Labour cap and calling for forms of identification to become part of the sign-up process for new accounts. Whilst this may tackle the issue of anonymity online, as well as prevent those with banned accounts re-registering with a different email address, it has the potential to lead us headlong into a world of identity fraud and concerns around data protection.
Phil Neville meanwhile has called for professional footballers to boycott social media altogether, removing the privilege for supporters to connect with their heroes that sites like Twitter have used as their USP for so long. Whilst this tallies with Neville’s suggestions that he would lead the England Women’s team off the pitch if they were ever subject to racist abuse during a game, there’s the sense that a boycott would not only be seen as a victory for the perpetrators, but also offers only a short-term solution for a longer term problem.
In a broader sense, there’s a split of opinion among social media users when it comes to combating abuse online. Those condemning racist posts have been met with responses that suggest amplifying these users only encourages their actions. Others simply feel that the best course of action is to ignore it and hope it goes away. That these opinions are largely shared from accounts of those that have not personally received abuse is perhaps telling. It is far easier to ignore something that has little to no impact on your own sense of identity.
While Twitter have agreed to look into ways to stem the rise of racism on its platform, they’ve also been quick to absolve themselves of total responsibility. And that’s fair enough – discrimination wasn’t invented by those who can only form opinions in 180 characters. Responding to initial queries around the abuse of Pogba, a spokesman for Twitter said, “This is a societal issue and requires a societal response.” Now if only there had been some kind of all-encompassing divide in British society in the last few years, perhaps we could land on a root cause for the new wave of racism in English football…
In all seriousness, Brexit is not wholly responsible for the upturn in incidents of discrimination. Whilst “legitimate concerns” around immigration were undoubtedly a major factor in the victory for Leave in 2016, to suggest every vote for Leave was a vote for intolerance is irresponsible and disingenuous. Any sensible, balanced commentator on the topic wouldn’t stoop so low as to state this as fact. Those that stand to benefit from that narrative – for example that it bolsters their own prejudiced beliefs – are a different story. There will be members of the British public that didn’t even vote in the referendum that have taken their cues from the sloganeering of the Leave campaign, deliberately misreading the phrase ‘Take Back Control’ and using it to their own ends.
“If we’re seeing a rise in hate crime, the Home Office is seeing a rise in hate crime and other bodies are seeing a rise in hate crime, it’s linked because that’s what is going on in society at the moment. If it’s there, we’ll see it in football”
Roisin Wood, CEO of Kick It Out, speaking to BBC Sport
It can be said with near certainty that racism in British society has become more visible since the result of the EU referendum. In a poll by the Guardian conducted in February 2019, 71% of people from ethnic minorities reported having faced racial discrimination, compared with 58% in January 2016. If its happening on our streets, is it any great surprise that it has returned to our stadiums and now pervades our discourse online?
Since the referendum instances of racist abuse towards players in the Premier League have risen dramatically. Just last season, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was targeted by Tottenham supporters during the North London derby, West Ham and Chelsea fans aimed Islamophobic chants toward Mohamed Salah, Brighton’s Gaetan Bong was subjected to abuse by a Burnley fan, whilst the racist barracking of Raheem Sterling at Stamford Bridge prompted the Manchester City forward to take to social media and address the issue head on. Because whilst Brexit has emboldened racists to air their backwards views publicly, there has long been a quarter of the British media informing and encouraging their point of view.
There’s more than a little irony in the fact that Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB company played a major role in moving the top flight of English football away from its dark past of hooliganism and intolerance on the terraces to the shiny multicultural cash-shitting machine is it today, particularly given the Antipodean coffin-dodger’s stranglehold on Britain’s right-wing tabloid media. Murdoch’s News Corp are responsible for the sluice of sewage that pollutes our newsagents and baby-boomer relatives homes in the twin guises of The Sun and The Daily Mail, both of whom not only banged the drum for Brexit with the sustained demonisation of immigrants, but have also been found guilty of singling out black footballers for criticism over the most trifling matters. By engendering an ‘Us and Them’ narrative, both publications earn their fair share of responsibility for the rise of racism in English football.
Rather than spending time pointing blame, it would perhaps be more beneficial for those in the media and positions of real power to begin formulating a plan to tackle this issue sooner rather than later. Tangible punishments for those spouting racial abuse online and at games must be introduced and enforced. The FA, Twitter, and football clubs at every level must be seen to be taking this matter seriously and, moving down the chain of responsibility, we as supporters can also play our part. Reporting accounts on social media, and reporting abuse in the stands is the very least we can do. I was ten years old when I first heard racist abuse at a football match. I knew it was wrong. Let’s not allow the next generation of supporters grow up thinking it isn’t.