The year is 1988. Liverpool and England hero John Barnes kicks away a banana skin. Football was a different time back then: Hooliganism was rife, safety was an afterthought, and racial abuse was common. It reflected British society.
Flash forward to 2019. Much progress has been made. But over 30 years later, racist abuse of footballers still persists. There has been a spike in recent years, but racism has never gone away. Just why is this prehistoric hatred still in football?
This isn’t just a British problem. According to Kick It Out, 54% of football fans globally have witnessed racial abuse at a stadium. In fact, there are many footballing nations that are so much worse than Britain at tackling racial abuse. However, this is also in tandem with their ability to tackle abuse and hooliganism in general. Here, we seem to have a specific problem with racism. Much of Russian fandom harks back to the British 1970s’ tradition of hooliganism and violence. Modern day Britain has minimised its football-related violence. But racism still persists. At the very top level of our game, monkey chants are aimed towards Raheem Sterling, a banana skin was hurled in front of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and chants of ‘Salah is a bomber’ preceded his wonder goal against Chelsea. At least to give some tiny amount of footballing justice, Sterling is blitzing through the best season of his life, Aubameyang was celebrating after his penalty helped beat Spurs 4-2, and Salah responded to the racist chants that emerged on social media by striking the ball beautifully into the top corner. Worryingly, if this horrific abuse is taking place at the highest level, then what on earth is going on in the lower leagues? It’s despairing to imagine what goes on further down the pyramid of English football.
How come this is still happening? Well, this isn’t a football problem. Football reflects society. Perhaps nowhere more than in the home of football. Raheem Sterling is widely praised for his action on this. Earlier this season, after suffering yet more racist abuse, he posted two pictures on Instagram. It highlighted the media’s role in perpetuating this racism. He posted two Daily Mail headlines that covered the story of footballers buying houses. For the white Phil Foden the headline read: ‘City starlet Phil Foden buys new £2mn home for his Mum’. For the black Tosin Adarabioyo the headline read ‘Young footballer on £25,000 a week buys £2.25 million mansion despite having never started a Premier League match’. It’s an example of the countless racist scrutiny black players face.
Sterling was brave to post this, as the media could have come after him even more. But the football media reacted well, and the guilt of the newspapers frightened them into balanced reporting. They now don’t harass Sterling like they used to – and I assume won’t harass many black players like they used to. Yet the nuances still persist. Whenever Paul Pogba is praised, it often refers to his ‘pace’, ‘power’, and ‘physicality’. Whilst he has these atttributes, rarely is his incredible skill, technique or vision the first that commentators mention.
Football is a microcosm of society, and has nott produced racism out of thin air. The media’s treatment of ethnic minorities goes far beyond football. Across society, politicians’ rhetoric is becoming increasingly more sinister, racist and callous. There’s a resurgence of the far right. Football should be the place to escape all racism, rather than be tainted with it.