Despite the progress made since the 1970s, racism remains a scourge on the beautiful game, writes Martyn McLaughlin.
It is only right that the untimely death of Cyrille Regis, the former England footballer, has prompted heartfelt tributes from across the world of sport and beyond. As one of the first high-profile black professionals in the British game, he endured a torrent of nauseating abuse throughout a career defined by dignity and defiance.
He was a man bestowed with strength, dynamism, and vision, but such traits were anathema to a warped minority who perceived otherness not as a gift, but an abnormality. From the terraces, throngs of thousands strong hurled slurs with absolute impunity. “Nigger, nigger lick my boots,” went one chant, which presumably found favour on account of its modest syllable count.
The moments of pride, such as winning a first call-up for his country, lanced long-festering boils among support that found room to accommodate the National Front and their ilk. Undeterred, Regis channelled the hurt into anger, and pulled on the shirt.
It is the duty of obituarists to accord Regis the status of a trailblazer, given how he was one of just a handful of young sportsmen to bear an unconscionable burden for no other reason than the colour of their skin. But such a distinction, fitting though it may be, risks inferring that the arduous journey those pioneering players embarked upon has reached a satisfactory end.
For that reason, the early day motion laid down in Westminster by a clutch of Labour MPs in memory of Regis is a fitting accolade. Not only does it salute his contribution to tackling racism in sport, it implores the government to “redouble its efforts” to work alongside governing bodies and clubs to banish it for good.
Regis, together with peers such as Laurie Cunningham, John Barnes, and Mark Walters, helped rid the grounds of a uniquely toxic strain of overt bigotry. The sickening abuse reduced in volume as other supporters, who for so long accepted such behaviour as a byproduct of football’s pre-Sky era, realised that neither they or the players had to accept it.
It was a gradual process but its impact offered a glimpse of football’s potential to effect change. Legislation was ratified as a consequence and an attitudunal shift was slowly won. But even a fairweather follower of football can see that robbing one generation of racists of their visibility has not dissuaded the next from following suit.
While wider society has made significant inroads in combating racism over the past four decades, the efforts on the part of football authorities are lagging behind. This year is only a little more than a fortnight old, yet that has been time enough for the perennial scourges of discrimination and intolerance to creep through the cracks.
Tyrone Mings, an articulate defender with Bournemouth in the English Premier League, has spoken out about the thousands of racist and derogatory comments he has received via social media, a trend he stresses is far from uncommon and which has targeted countless victims.
The problem is not confined to the ether. The Football Association, an institution whose credibility is in tatters following the Eni Aluko racism scandal, has taken the Brasso to its blazer buttons and pledged to investigate not one, but two allegations of racist remarks by players in the English top flight.
Here, in Scotland, Ally Love, a journeyman with League Two side, Clyde, has been charged with excessive misconduct by the Scottish FA after allegedly making racist comments to Annan’s Rabin Omar.
These are not isolated incidents. A report last autumn by Kick It Out, football’s anti-discrimination campaign, showed that over the 2016/17 season, it received 469 reports of abuse, nearly half related to race. A reflection of the febrile political climate, it is the highest tally of complaints on record.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Spartak Moscow, the most successful club side in the history of Europe’s most populous country, posted a tweet to its 694,000 followers at the weekend showing three black players training in sunny conditions. An accompanying annotation by the Moscow club’s resident wit billed it as “chocolates melting in the sun”.
Such an appalling slight will likely be the tip of the iceberg given the spectre of a supposed showpiece – the FIFA World Cup, which is being staged in Russia this summer. Concerns about abuse and racist violence in a host nation where black players are routinely subjected to monkey noises are longstanding, yet with less than five months to go before the world’s greatest sporting spectacle gets underway, it would be a shock were the tourney to pass without incident.
This is the bequest of a game stewarded by a meek and complicit governing body which, two years ago, disbanded its anti-racism task force on the basis it had “fulfilled” its mission. Who would have thought the lure of money and power would prove greater than the cause of social justice?
Whatever atrocities lie in wait, we can take solace in the knowledge that it is not the administrators who define our sporting culture. That role belongs to men like Cyrille Regis, who through the virtue of their own decency, revealed to us the transformative power of football.
What a shame it is that the game he did so much for has been so slow to honour his legacy.