From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.33 :: NO.38 :: Sep. 23, 2010
Kick out racism, as FIFA demands. Then the first thing to be done if they are remotely serious is to kick out Russia. I am not attempting to push the case of England as 2018 World Cup hosts though I think it is a perfectly feasible one. I am simply asking FIFA with little hope of success to put their money where their very loud mouth is.
The latest displeasing instance of racism in Russia comes from the bigoted fans of Lokomotiv Moscow. When their club recently sold the Nigerian attacker Peter Odemwinge to West Bromwich Albion an elaborately designed banner was shown at a home match with the inscription ‘Thank you West Bromwich Albion' beneath which was displayed a colour picture of a banana. An evasive spokesman of the Russian Embassy in London insisted that the symbol of a banana had no racial significance but was simply an old Russian joke. Please!
It was recalled in the British Press that when the celebrated Dutch coach Dick Advocaat was managing Zenith Saint Petersburg, he did not dare to sign any African players because the level of antagonism was so high. And one African player who had played for a Russian club declared that he didn't dare go out in the streets at night, fearing for his life.
Go back to the 2006 World Cup in Germany and we find the ultimate parody of FIFA's meaningless campaign. Before a match involving Ukraine, both teams were lined up by the apposite banners to express fidelity to the anti-racism project. At the end of the Ukrainian line, quite cool and unabashed it seemed, stood the manager Oleg Blokhin, once a famed left winger. Only a few weeks earlier he had unleashed a bitter tirade against black players who he inveighed had no place in Ukrainian football. Kick out racialists? Not a bit of it.
Nor alas is football racism remotely confined to Russia. The powerful 20-year-old attacker Mario Balotelli has just been bought for £24 million by Manchester City from Inter. The son of Ghanaian parents but born in Palermo and adopted by Italian parents in Northern Brescia. And although he was disputably left out of Italy's World Cup squad — for reasons of temperament rather than talent — he has subsequently been capped for the Azzurri. Yet last season, even in games where he wasn't even playing, Juventus' racist fans would chant, “If you jump up and down, Balotelli will die!”
When England last played Spain in Madrid, their black players were constantly abused. Indeed some years earlier when Real Madrid appointed as their coach the black Pato Maturana, a manager much respected in South American football, such was the vicious reaction among Real's so called ultras that the club cravenly and one-sidedly cancelled his contract.
In England things, thank goodness have hugely improved over the years though there is a long way to go. Oddly enough there was a prominent black player in English football before the first World War in which he served as a brave infantry officer and was killed. In the 1930s, a gifted and respected black outside left J. Paris of Bradford won a cap for Wales.
But in the late 1970s and 1980s racism was brutally endemic not least at Chelsea, infested by a foul bunch of neo-Nazis who made the life of the young black left winger Paul Canoville a torment. There was also much prejudice in the game itself, fatuous myths that black players were cowards, that you wouldn't “see” them on a cold February night in Middlesbrough. Almost a lone voice then among football correspondents, I wrote and published in a London evening paper a short story, “Black Magic”, satirising a bigoted soccer coach ridiculed by a gifted young black player. To my delight it was republished in the chief London West Indian magazine “The Voice”. As a result of such reports, I received a death threat from some squalid little neo-Nazi group. But things have now radically changed.
They took longer to change in Scotland. When my friend Paul Elliott came back from playing for Pisa in Italy's Serie A to join Glasgow Celtic, there was a notorious occasion at Celtic Park when Hearts were the visitors and their fans subjected Elliott to a bombardment of abuse. Until their outside left and captain, Robertson, nobly went over to them and told them to desist. Nowadays, however, there are so many black players in Scotland as in England that such outrages are a thing of the past.
Yet in English Football, whatever the prejudices and delusions prevalent some years ago, the way has never been officially barred to black players as it so shamefully was for decades in United States baseball. It seems almost unimaginable that until as late as 1946, black players were excluded from playing in either of the American baseball leagues. This is a so called pioneering democracy.
So black players were obliged to operate in leagues of their own and highly talented some of them were: men who beyond doubt would have excelled in the two all white competitions. Men such as Satchel Paige, who was arguably one of the best pitchers in the country, but never had the chance to play Major League Baseball.
Shamefully, it took the advent of a second war hero, Lieutenant Jackie Robinson, to provide the belated breakthrough. He was allowed to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and so many fine black players such as the record breaking batter Willie Mays have followed in his footsteps.
Now and again it is true FIFA and UEFA have imposed fines to punish race behaviour in various stadiums but the problem is arguably too huge and too widely disseminated, not least in Eastern Europe, for any organisation to abolish it. What FIFA plainly must not do is encourage it. Excesses such as that of Luis Aragones, when as manager of Spain, he referred to France's Thiery Henry as “that black s…,” were too appalling not to be punished. But what was ever done about Blokhin? And what excuse would there be for granting racist Russia the 2018 World Cup?
Brazil have it in 2014. Slavery was abolished there only in the 1880s, Black players accepted only around 1930. But since then they have inspired the world game and Brazilian football has been a beacon.
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