Tuesday, 13 March 2012

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Eric Cantona signals his position in the
recent world football respect rankings




'I'm about to give you all of my money
And all I'm askin' in return, honey
Is for a little respect.'


Aretha Franklin was not discoursing on professional football when she sang these immortal lines, but they are as relevant to the beautiful game in 2012 as they ever were to furthering women’s rights in the late 60s. Such is the lack of respect that modern footballers seem to have for almost everyone.

I, like the rest of the country’s media and football fans, am under no illusion that football is a beautiful game. It’s not. It’s ugly as hell, and the media loves it that way. The second incarnation of ‘shake-gate’ was held at Loftus Road recently, or rather it wasn’t, as the powers-that-be at QPR decided to cancel the players’ nonsensical polite greeting before the FA cup tie against Chelsea. Handshakes, after all, presuppose respect. The spotlight shone on the pre-game handshake of Terry and Ferdinand was brighter than the one trained on the match itself, which only goes to show the vested interest of sports reporters for scandal. This is neatly demonstrated through a volley of recent incidents, be they racist (see Evra), sexist (lineswoman Sian Massey), violent (Balotelli) or monetary (Redknapp).

The attention paid to on and off field controversy in British football is nothing new. Cantona’s kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan in 1995 received as many column inches as his superb goals ever did. I don’t intend to play down the seriousness of abuse in the football, on the contrary, it should be highlighted in a bid to render it socially unacceptable, but I do take issue with the salivating circus of today’s media in escalating matters beyond the immediate context. The Terry/Ferdinand shake drama is evidence of this, as BBC Five Live cut ceremoniously to full pre-match commentary on the eventual non-incident.

The usually monosyllabic Alan Shearer made a valiant attempt on Match of The Day recently to play down the recent racism scandals, saying that we should simply stop talking about it and get on with the football itself. This, naturally, came at the end of a fifteen-minute link devoted to discussing it. The same happened on ITV’s coverage of the FA Cup third round, during an excruciating thirty seconds when presenter Matt Smith desperately tried to explain what he meant when suggesting that studio pundit Paul Ince was ‘uniquely positioned’ to pour comment on the issue.

Paradoxically, you may say, the last paragraph only serves to continue the debate, rather than putting it to bed. This would be the case, except when recent matters are viewed from a slightly different angle.
Racism in football is unacceptable, agreed. However, it is my belief that ‘racism’ as a term needs to be examined. I do not believe that John Terry is a racist. By that I mean to say that I don’t think the England captain views himself as intrinsically superior due to his colour, or actively dislikes anyone purely for their different racial background. It is partly the insistence on viewing racism through the anachronistic eyes of the 1980s that perpetuates the belief that he does.

There is a tendency to view racism with unspeakable fear. Not fear of actual hatred towards people of other races, but of the word itself and its connotations. It is a social taboo that causes the British (especially) to freeze in fright, wince and change the subject. This is partially why the television discussions of the recent incidents in football have been so awkward and stilted.What I mean by this is simple: there is a difference between a racist comment and full-blown racial hatred. Sports journalists and pundits, on the whole, fail to recognise this.

This fear is clearly motivated by the awful history of racism in this country. But, with all the progress that has been made towards racial equality, why do we still panic at the thought of raising any issues even remotely related to race? Partially because a whole generation have been rendered petrified of saying ‘the wrong thing’ after a volatile period that saw inexcusable and vehement racial abuse. This was during the first days of black players’ emergence in the English game; the days of Viv Anderson, Garth Crooks and tellingly, the Toxteth and Brixton riots.

Alan Hansen is one such fossil from these times, as shown recently during his confused ramble in which he practically said that some of his best friends were ‘coloured’. We live in a fully integrated multi-cultural society, and I do not believe I am na├»ve in suggesting that a racist comment (by which I mean referring to a someone by their colour) in football or any other arena is tantamount to racial hatred. More importantly, I believe there are worse problems in sport that continue to be overshadowed because of the huge taboo that exists around the term ‘racism’ – especially in the British media. Yes, it doesn’t help that the head of football’s world governing body is tactless on the subject of race, but does anyone really think that Blatter is a racist? He’s just out of touch, that’s all.

John Terry may be a lot of things, but I don’t believe he hates black people. He has grown up through the football system as a friend and colleague to players of all races and backgrounds, the Ferdinand brothers included. Yes, he may sleep with his team-mates’ wives, but I don’t believe he despises Anton Ferdinand for his ethnicity.

It is alleged that Terry called Ferdinand a F****** Black C***. Horrible, yes, but there is an equal chance he was referring to the referee as a F****** Blind C***. If this were the case, then his FA hearing (and his criminal trial) would undoubtedly have a different, more lenient outcome than if he were found guilty of racial abuse. But is either acceptable? Not at all. It is precisely the fear we hold as a nation about racist language after the dark ages of the 1980s that has caused the matter to be discussed at such length. It is also why the misogyny directed at lineswoman Sian Massey and the trenchant homophobia on the terraces are not given a proportionately adequate airing, not to mention the sickening abuse that referees take every week.

Is, for instance, selecting the colour of someone’s skin inherently worse than commenting on his or her sexual orientation? Or, in the case of Luke Chadwick when he played for Manchester United, the fact that someone is spectacularly ugly? Only when viewed through morally confused spectacles.

The progress made in tackling racism within football is tremendous. Several high profile initiatives, including ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ and ‘Let’s Kick Racism out of Football’ have worked hard to level the playing field for black and mixed-race footballers. What I am suggesting here is a level-headed view of abuse of any kind in football, and sport at large. Instead of trying to form a narrative of racist episodes in football, sports journalism has a responsibility to grow up, view things as they really are in 2012 and get real. Beautiful and clean the game may not be, but let’s not kick dirt in its face unnecessarily. Address the equally despicable problems that referees, women officials and gay footballers receive, and we might just get somewhere.