How many times does this have to happen before people start to take the problem seriously?
It’s a question which feels chillingly applicable to all kinds of menacing aspects of modern life, but nowhere is it more pertinent than in the constant rhetorical pile-on surrounding racism in football.
Like a mangy dog chasing its tail, the conversation spins in frantic circles with no real hope of a meaningful resolution, while those who could make an actual, profound difference continue to do their best impressions of ostriches in a sandpit.
The latest nadir in this blood-boiling omnishambles came in Budapest on Thursday evening. Again, Gareth Southgate’s shining England team exuded the same magnificence that took them to the brink of Euro 2020 glory over the summer, coolly putting four past Hungary without so much as a semblance of a reply.
But once again, as has been the case far too often for far too long, the result was marred by the foul stain of racist abuse.
Both Raheem Sterling and Jude Bellingham were sporadically subjected to monkey chants throughout the match, and the former was pelted with plastic cups from the stands after scoring the Three Lions’ opener. The fact that Sterling still persisted with his heartfelt tribute to Steffie Gregg, a friend who passed away from complications relating to Covid-19 earlier in the week, is a credit to the strength of his character.
We shouldn’t have to be talking about a footballer’s fortitude in the face of racism, though. To put it in the simplest of terms, he shouldn’t be racially abused in the first place.
Hungarian “Ultras”, as they like to call themselves – a moniker that not only comes across as a desperately flimsy attempt to assert their manly knack for intimidation, but one that probably describes their level of insecurity and personal dissatisfaction quite aptly too – are renowned for their bigoted ways.
Had Thursday night’s match been UEFA-affiliated, it would have been played behind closed doors as punishment for the homophobic banner that was displayed in the stands during Hungary's Euro 2020 defeat to Portugal, as well as the monkey chants that were heard during their draw with France.
Instead, because it was a FIFA-sanctioned World Cup qualifier, the hosts were allowed a capacity crowd.
It’s little wonder that the issue of racism in football is viewed with such reckless abandon by so many when the two most powerful authorities in the professional game can’t even fall in line on a consistent means of discipline. This malleable, caveat-ridden reaction to such blatant discrimination isn’t just a middle finger to any kind of proper accountability, it’s totally, utterly, snivelingly pathetic too.
But let’s not pretend that the problem lies solely with a bloated, uncaring administrative body, or with a pocket of socially-antiquated hooligans in a far-off country in Eastern Europe either.
Prior to kick-off, boos rang out around the Puskas Arena as the England team decided to take the knee. It was a mass retaliation to a perfectly legitimate, peaceful gesture that was barbed with the worst human emotions. Perhaps it would have made for a wholly affecting spectacle if it hadn’t been for the fact that a vocal minority of English fans have been embodying those same permissible strains of hatred before just about every Euro 2020 and Premier League game we’ve seen this summer, spurred on by the nonchalance of the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary.
That’s where we're at now – we’ve normalised being anti-anti-racist, and there are some quarters who are more than happy to align themselves with a deplorable faction of Ultras who pride themselves on excluding just about anybody they can.
And again, for the thousandth bloody time, because some people – wilfully ignorant or otherwise – still don’t seem to get it, taking the knee is not a coded salute extolling the virtues of Marxism to a naive, pliable nation. Most footballers could fritter away more on a pair of trainers than you or I earn in an entire calendar year and they wouldn’t miss a beat. It’s hardly Communist Manifesto 101, folks.
Here’s another news flash, “wokedom” isn’t real. It’s just a buzz word cooked up by a haughty bunch of social conservatives with vested interests, perpetuated by a media with equally selfish agendas, designed to weaponise decency and portray empathy as a last bastion of the lunatic fringe.
And that’s what makes this doubly frustrating. In the coming days, don’t be surprised to see a salvo of pearl-clutching headlines from duplicitous tabloids asking how such awful, awful abuse could be inflicted on our brave young lads. But these are exactly the sort of establishments that have enabled a foundational level of racism to exist in English football for decades themselves.
It may not be as overt as raining half-finished pints of lukewarm beer down on a black player as he pays tribute to the memory of his lost friend, but years of insinuation and carefully-crafted half-stories have acted as a dog whistle to the swathes of people in this country who are angry and looking for somebody – preferably anybody who doesn’t look, act, or think like them – to blame.
Another tangent of post-match rhetoric seemed to focus on this idea that Sterling had somehow “silenced” the racists by scoring against their beloved country. It’s simply not true. Does anybody genuinely believe that a tap-in a World Cup qualifier is going to have a Hungarian Ultra lying awake in bed thinking, ‘You know what, I used to hate ethnic minorities, but given Raheem’s composure in and around the six-yard box I now see them as my equals in every conceivable way’? I mean, come on.
Marcus Rashford spent most of the year feeding hungry children and embarrassing a negligent Tory government, and his own fans still turned on him like a pack of prejudiced hyenas in the aftermath of the Euro 2020 final. This is hair-trigger hostility, fuelled by sporting endeavours, not soothed by them.
Goals don’t silence racists. People in power with the means to punish, better education on matters of diversity, and reinforcement from a media with a working moral compass silence racists.
Pretending otherwise does nobody any good – except the bigots – and ignoring our own national treatment of young black players whenever something like this happens is a convenient way of deflecting the blame while holding a smoking gun.
After yet another painful reminder of just how far we have to left to go when it comes to eradicating racism in football, what Sterling, Bellingham, and their teammates need now is solidarity.
But solidarity absolutely must take the form of sincere action, not just the hollow brand of disposable, dissoluble lip service that we’ve seen wheeled out too many times before.
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