I’m not sure it’s a smart move from one of the world’s best players to be leaning on others and telling them what their conscience should be telling them. Regardless of colour, many footballers will regard the 2018 World Cup, when it arrives, as the highlight of their career, perhaps the only major international tournament they get the opportunity to play at. I listened to Jason Brown, the former Wales goalkeeper, arguing for a boycott from black players on the radio last night, citing the ‘monkey chant’ abuse he received from Serbia fans during an international match as a particular cause of upset. Brown knew he was the target seeing as he was the only non-white player on the pitch during the game.
Being white, I won’t pretend I understand because I don’t – but I can imagine that it has the potential to be immensely hurtful. That said, the idea of Brown, Yaya Toure or anyone else as a 21st century Rosa Parks falls down on a number of levels. First up, isn’t a ‘white supremacist World Cup’ exactly what the complete arseholes dishing out this sort of abuse would want? Then there’s the deprivation of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to less than household names, who might get a lucrative move to Europe off the back of appearing in an international tournament. Finally, it’s the achievements of non-white players on the pitch that expose this bullshit for what it is, evidenced by the changing attitudes amongst English football supporters.
But there’s another aspect to this that seems to have been missed. England, regarded for decades as the world champions of soccer hooliganism, have now fallen some way down the pecking order. I’ve always wondered if this is something we’ve indulged in a slice of unnecessary self-flagellation about, since fighting within the ground, the firing of flares and rockets at opposing supporters and people actually being killed at matches have, for as long as I can remember, been more associated with mainland Europe and South America than they have with English football. Anyone who’s seen an Argentinian or Brazilian match where the army are on standby from the first whistle would be tempted to conclude that the English were just playing at it.
Watching a match from Eastern Europe serves as a reminder of what English football has left behind, while going to Turkey for a European tie is something that foreign fans do entirely aware of the risks involved. Meanwhile, Italian ultras still have connections to fascist and communist groups even now (Paolo Di Canio’s Mussolini tribute act being the most obvious illustration of this). While I was watching a lot of calcio a few years back, Juventus fans signalled their dissatisfaction at a few bad results by setting fire to parts of the ground, most notably after a televised 0-2 loss to Palermo. It’s the sort of shit that, were it to happen in England, would have self-appointed crusaders and football-hating politicians campaigning for clubs to be banned from Europe.
UEFA does not have to allow anyone to play in one of their competitions, regardless of whether or not they have qualified through their domestic league or other tournaments. Indeed, they have refused entry to clubs on a case-by-case basis in the past. So it’s worth asking why this inconsistency exists – why racism, violence, death, political extremism, rockets and pyromania are either tolerated at European grounds or met with the slap on the wrist of a match behind closed doors, when all English clubs were removed from European club football between 1985 and 1990. Was the ban back then overly harsh, or is there a nasty double standard at work here? I’d lean towards the former, but can understand the opposing view.
If football hooliganism ever was ‘the English Disease’ then it probably follows the same line as our understanding of most sports, that of we invented it, someone else perfected it.
With that in mind, I’m off to watch the rugby league – don’t let the bastards grind you down.