Brian Wilson: The dutiful game informs society
Football may harbour racist elements but it is also a powerful force in improving our social conscience, writes Brian Wilson
I have spent the past week watching football in Poland and a very uplifting experience it was too. Great country, great people, great tournament and don’t believe anything to the contrary.
At a time when Europe is falling apart economically, football is doing more than its fair share to hold it together at a human level. What an excellent moment for the ordinary people of the continent to assemble, in their hundreds of thousands, for the shared celebration of a common interest.
Such scenes might not impress the heads of government meeting in Mexico or the bankers demanding austerity programmes till the pips squeak. But maybe they should serve as a reminder that a European continent living in harmony, divided by nothing more dangerous than football, is a prize worth paying a significant price for; one that cannot be counted in euros.
And where better to be reminded of that than in Poland with all its redolence of other eras, evils and ideologies? Who of our parents’ generation would have predicted that the streets of Danzig or Warsaw would be filled with huge crowds from every corner of Europe, wearing the uniforms of football teams rather than of invading armies?
There was no shortage of gallows humour in evidence. You will never outdo the Irish when it comes to irony, so they sang to the Spaniards: “You’re skint and you know you are”. Then there was the assurance emblazoned on a noble Helenic chest: “Greek Lovers are not in Crisis”.
Much of the pre-tournament emphasis was on the possibility of trouble and the cameras are poised to magnify any incident while taking for granted the fact that 99.9 per cent of those present are interested only in supporting their teams, having a good time and making friends with their fellow-Europeans.
Sure, the Poles took exception to a large number of Russians forming what looked suspiciously like a march through the streets of Warsaw, which does have certain historical connotations. But it didn’t come to much. Then there was a touch of desperation about the prominence given to a story about “Croatian supporters” throwing “a banana”.
This prompted me to wonder – how many supporters can be involved in throwing a banana? And how can all the authorities in Christendom stop a single clown doing something stupid? We have been trying to answer that question ourselves for long enough without overwhelming success.
There have been other examples of racist chanting and the Germans are being investigated by UEFA for the sighting of a neo-Nazi flag. All such incidents are awful and deplorable. It is in every civilized citizen’s interest that they are eradicated, whether at home or abroad. But it is also necessary to maintain a sense of perspective, celebrate the positive and recognise the hugely positive contribution that sporting contact can make to human relationships and attitudes.
Football gets a bad press, at least on the news pages. Yet it is probably the single most effective secular force on the face of the earth for bringing people together in a shared interest. Get into a taxi anywhere in the world and a common language, however halting, is likely to be the beautiful game. Even better, it is a subject on which the poor and the rich communicate on equal terms of knowledge and opinion.
Social evils such as racism and bigotry try to attach themselves to football precisely because of its unique social reach. It provides an attractive platform for the most sinister or merely stupid elements in society, no matter how hard it tries to distance itself from them. Sometimes the football authorities should try harder but, as we know from our own experience, the abolition of prejudice is easier said than done – and the longer it takes to acknowledge a problem, the more deeply rooted it becomes.
It is less often recognised that football – far from being responsible for ignorant prejudice – is hugely beneficial in addressing it. Until recently, there were very few coloured players in Scotland and those who emerged, like Paul Wilson, Mark Walters and Kevin Harper, were subjected to the full racist treatment – bananas and chants included. Football did not create that ignorance but drew it to the surface, where it could be addressed and, hopefully, one day defeated.
The same was even more true in England where the far Right tried very hard to attach itself to football in order to spread its poison. Yet the make-up of those who play the game at the highest level has produced largely the opposite effect. When Walcott crosses for Welbeck to score, nearly all of England cheers and racism is isolated. Football, because it had to, has become the most influential preacher and practitioner of anti-racism and a “respect” agenda.
When Poland and Ukraine bid to host the Euro finals, it was with the clear purpose of making a statement about their progress towards becoming modern, enlightened European states. It can hardly be denied that Ukraine has, in these terms, regressed. But even then, football has contributed a positive by focusing attention on the democratic deficit in a country of which most people hitherto knew nothing of and cared less.
Even those, like the author Marina Lewycki , who acknowledge Ukraine’s deficiencies argue that it needs support in dealing with its lunatic fringe and that an event like the European Championship Finals “can only help bring Ukraine into modern Europe”. Ultimately, it is politics and not sport which will determine whether Ukraine develops in that way any time soon – but surely better to help encourage that outcome than write it off through pariah status.
The former Celtic player Paul Elliott, who was also Chelsea’s first black captain, was awarded the CBE last week for his services to equality and diversity. He is better placed than most to know about racism and football. It was right, he says, to hold the tournament in Poland and Ukraine “because the power of football is so great it can break down barriers and challenge racism and xenophobia”.
Paul Elliott is also worth listening to on the subject of the social media which, he says, is “bringing out the ugliness of people”. It has “given racists another platform and they can hide”. In the football context, this means that the kind of low-life who taunted him throughout his playing career, but who would now be thrown out of football grounds, can find refuge in the anyonymity of the internet.
Once again, the point is made that these are not the problems of football but of every society including our own. No corner of Europe can rest on its laurels or surrender its vigilance. So thanks to Poland for a great week of symbolism, substance and simple enjoyment – and that’s before the Greeks meet Germany tomorrow!
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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