For years, I went to football twice a week – sometimes more than twice a week; it was my job and my pleasure. Nowadays, I’m just an armchair supporter, watching streams or highlights, like hundreds of thousands up and down the country. But there’s still something about the football fan in me that felt deeply saddened about the sight this week of that footage from Paris, of a group of fans racially harassing an ordinary member of the public and proudly making racist chants.
Saddened, but it can’t just be sadness. As someone who loves football you want to hope that sort of thing had been banished forever. Football – and clubs like Chelsea – have come a long way since the terrible, shameful days of the 1970s and 1980s, of fans making racist chants towards their own players. But it hasn’t come far enough. To minimise what we saw this week is to imagine it’s not still there. It’s still there. It’s still a problem. And the football community has a lot to do about it.
There’s no point in picking on Chelsea, as if it’s just Chelsea: all clubs have their share of horrific supporters. There’s no point in picking on football, as if it’s just football: all sports and all activities in all walks of life have their share of racists. There’s no point in picking in obvious, confrontational racists, as if they’re the only ones who exist: there are so many kinds of racism and prejudice that need to be combated.
But, all that said, Chelsea is a club that kept John Terry on, despite what he did. England rightly shunned him. Whatever the reasons behind the club’s decision – the qualities of the player can be debated, but they’ve never been questioned to be at the very highest level of the highest level – the fact is, they kept him on, despite everything that was reported, and everything that was said. That was a choice.
You think about what’s happened with Ched Evans, the convicted rapist who has been trying to rebuild his career with a variety of lower-division professional clubs. There’s something similar. Why shouldn’t someone who’s done something offensive, appalling and despicable be allowed back? What about rehabilitation? What about giving someone a fair go? The point being that footballer isn’t a job like any other. It’s a job that is literally public-facing; it involves being an ambassador as well as a ball-kicker. Being good at football isn’t enough. It’s about so much more. If you employ someone like Evans, what message is that sending to all those children in the crowd? Same with Terry. If you keep him on, despite what happened, what message did that send?
It’s interesting but not particularly surprising to see the makeup of the people on that Paris train carriage. They aren’t just your stereotypical Football Factory geezers barking Danny Dyer dialogue off the back of a beermat. They’re people with good jobs. They don’t look like racists. Not that anyone other than the most feeble minded would imagine that there is some kind of shaven-headed, bomber-jacketed uniform for racists since the 1970s and 1980s. Racists are everywhere, in every walk of life. It’s not a working-class pastime. It’s not a pastime. It’s a way of life, a state of mind, that happens to coincide with people’s pastimes.
It happens everywhere. Not just in football. But since it is in football, what’s football going to do about it? Racism has to be totally toxic everywhere in the game. It has to be made toxic. It needs to be easier to report racism – not just to overworked stewards during a game, but everywhere. Everyone has the right to feel safe and free of harassment on public transport, in the streets, not just outside a ground but all over. Anyone associated with football, who breaks the rules, needs to go, no matter how valuable they are. Player, official, supporter, manager, whoever. If they transgress, zero tolerance. Any kind of leniency gives it a place where it has been allowed to feel safe. Racism shouldn’t feel safe.