Back in December, Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling was subjected to shocking racist abuse at the hands of Chelsea fans during a Premier League match. Unbeknownst to us all at the time, this incident would ignite the spark that has fuelled the recent discussion about racism in football, worldwide and in the UK, at all levels.
In the aftermath of the game, as Chelsea announced they would begin an inquest into the racist behaviour, Sterling took to social media to weigh in and criticise the media for its portrayal of young black footballers. He attached the headline of a Daily Mail article that was essentially condemning a young player for spending his wages, despite the fact that he had not started a match. People were quick to hit back at the article, after all the young player in question is earning a living and why should he not spend his wages? Sterling accused the media of fuelling racist behaviour:
“Good morning I just want to say, I am not normally the person to talk a lot but when I think I need my point to heard I will speak up. Regarding what was said at the Chelsea game as you can see by my reaction I just had to laugh because I don’t expect no better. For example you have two young players starting out their careers both play for the same team……both buy a new house for their mothers….but look how the newspapers get their message across for the young black player and then for the young white player. This young black kid is looked at in a bad light. Which helps fuel racism an aggressive behaviour, so for all the newspapers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all I have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity and give all players an equal”.
Skip forward a few months, and Sterling has become a beacon of sorts for the players having to deal with racist abuse. His views on a sensitive, human rights issue have been commended by players, pundits and politicians alike. But during England’s recent Euro 2020 qualifier against Montenegro, Sterling, along with several of his England teammates, were again the target of unacceptable racial abuse. Montenegro faced England back in 2013, a game that saw a brawl amongst the Montenegrin fans and flares launched onto the pitch, so the Three Lions had some idea of what kind of atmosphere they were headed into. However, this time around, the fans showed their true colours and the chants marred what was an impressive sporting achievement by England, triumphing 5-1. While blame is not solely on Montenegro or any country in particular for the root of this racist behaviour, the collective incidents that have taken place in European football reflect a disgusting attitude, and a disappointing trend. A brief history of the racially aggravated incidents in Europe:
- February 2019 – No punishment for Chelsea after alleged racist chanting against MOL Vidi
- November 2018– Greece handed partial stadium ban and fined after racist behaviour
- October 2018 – Romania handed stadium ban and fined
- September 2018 – Poland handed partial stadium closure
- August 2018 – Red Star Belgrade handed stadium ban and fined
- August 2018 – Lyon handed two-game stadium ban for offences, including racist behaviour
- June 2018– Atletico Madrid handed partial stadium closure after racist banner displayed
- June 2018 – Zenit Saint Petersburg fined for racism
- March 2018 – No punishment for Atalanta BC after alleged racist behaviour
- December 2017 – Zenit St Petersburg handed partial stadium and fine
- October 2017 – Spartak Moscow handed partial stadium
- July 2015 – Croatia handed two-game stadium ban and fined after a Nazi symbol became visible during their match with Italy.
- March 2015 – Croatia handed stadium ban. Despite a partial stadium closure, racist chanting was heard from home fans outside the stadium
- December 2014– Croatia handed partial stadium for racist behaviour
- September 2015 – Romania handed stadium ban for racism
- April 2013 – Dynamo Kiev ordered to play behind closed doors
- December 2012 – Serbia fined for racism. Full back Danny Rose was subject to monkey chants from the stand
UEFA said “disciplinary proceedings” had been opened against Montenegro with one charge for “racist behaviour” and the case is due to be dealt with by European football’s governing body on the 16th May. Montenegro coach Louisa Tumbao said he did not “hear or notice any” racist abuse, which seems unfathomable. At this point, no favours are being done by refusing to acknowledge the behaviour. But England manager Gareth Southgate, speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, said he “definitely heard the racist abuse of Rose”. It is difficult to decipher the best way to handle this kind of situation, clearly the fines and partial /full stadium bans have not been getting the message relayed effectively. A contingent of Croatian fans in particular seems decidedly fixed on engaging in racist and hateful activities. Kick it Out, an anti-discrimination charity, said: “As we’ve argued countless times, it’s time for UEFA to take strong, decisive action – fines won’t do. Extended stadium bans or tournament expulsion are what’s needed.” Troy Townsend, who is a campaigner for Kick It Out, told BBC Sport: ”Is closing a stadium for a game that’s not going to be against England worthy? Or is expulsion more worthy? Our experience is that by combining both sanctions and education, while working alongside campaigners such as Kick It Out, real progress can be made. But there remains much work to be done”.
Sterling has again been very vocal in the matter and has called on a complete stadium ban to force supporters to think twice about their actions: “I don’t think it was just one or two people that heard it, it was the whole bench. There should be a real punishment for this, not just the two or three people who were doing it – it needs to be a collective thing. This place holds 15,000. The punishment should be, whatever nation it is, if your fans are chanting racist abuse then it should be the whole stadium so no-one can come and watch. When the ban is lifted, the fans will think twice. They all love football, they all want to come and watch their nation so it will make them think twice before doing something silly like that.”
While the Balkan region has clearly been experiencing more of these disturbing episodes, it is a problem that is endemic to society as a whole. English football has experienced a raft of reports of racist behaviour on the past few seasons. Former Liverpool winger John Barnes has criticised the condemnation of the Montenegro fans by claiming that it is hypocritical based on the racism endured by black players in the Premier League every week. “I think that it is quite hypocritical that we want to talk about Montenegro and say how terrible it is when we have not taken care of the problem here. We go to Montenegro once every six months, whereby every week we face it here in droves. So what is more serious? Going to Montenegro once a year or black people facing this every single day of their lives? Because it is high profile, we say, ‘let’s do something about it’, but we are really not tackling the issue here.”
Because racism is an issue deep rooted in society, it occurs at all levels. YouTuber Manny Brown says racism is a problem in grassroots football and believes he has found himself on the substitutes’ bench because he is black. Brown, who has more than one-and-a-half million subscribers on YouTube, was speaking as part of Tackling Racism: Grassroots which aired on Sky Sports. He plays for Sunday league team Under the Radar FC and uploads their matches online, and says racism is also an issue at the bottom of the football pyramid. Manny’s brother Tobi Brown, who also plays for Under the Radar and has three million YouTube subscribers, says people need to be educated about the impact their words can have. “When people are racist to you, they have the intention of actually offending you and trying to get a reaction out of you…so, giving them a reaction is going to give them what they want. If people don’t stamp it out from an early age, it becomes second nature and that’s not what you want. Educating people about racism and its effects is something that should be done.”