IT is hard to imagine Sepp Blatter’s remarks this week could have been more untimely had he tried. One would hope that as President of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, which we know better as Fifa, he would have at least an inkling of the controversies raging in the world’s highest profile league.
It seems not.
But before we go passing judgment on him, it appears that his denial of the existence of racism has been misunderstood. On Wednesday, when asked if he thought there was racism on the pitch, he told CNN World Sport: “I would deny it. There is no racism. There is maybe one of the players towards another, he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one. But also the one who is affected by that, he should say that this is a game. We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination.”
In a subsequent attempt to clarify his remarks, he said: “What I wanted to express is that, as football players, during a match, you have ‘battles’ with your opponents, and sometimes things are done which are wrong. But, normally, at the end of the match, you apologise to your opponent if you had a confrontation during the match, you shake hands, and when the game is over, it is over.”
His opinion seems to echo with that of Paul Ince, who earlier this month was reported to have said: “I am not making excuses for anyone but sometimes you can say something in the heat of the moment…. It doesn’t make you a racist. There is no intent in it; it just comes out. Bang! We have to be careful what we label people.”
While I understand the sentiments of both comments, I have to disagree wholeheartedly. While it is no great revelation that regrettable words are uttered in the heat of the moment, certain lines are so base that they are rendered inexcusable. Both men fail to address the impact that these comments have on the wider audience, both in the stands and at home watching on TV. How do you explain to a child that while it is not okay for them to use racist language, it is okay for their role models to behave in that way if they are under a lot of pressure and lose control?
My only measure of the abuse that Ince must have experienced as a player came as a 13-year-old watching Justin Fashanu play for Hearts at Tynecastle. The experience was enough to put me off going to games for life. As the only non-white face in the crowd, I was horrified and scared by the barrage of chants that were aimed at Fashanu. For the first time, I felt ashamed to be Scottish.
Not everyone is equipped with the ‘thick-skin’ that non-white players in Britain have, historically, been expected to be in possession of. Ignoring racist behaviour helps neither the victim nor the perpetrator.
In my own football experience, having had the fortune to represent Scotland at schoolboy, university and semi-professional levels, I have encountered racism sporadically. Having a black Zimbabwean father and white Scottish mother blessed me with a skin tone that is not entirely in keeping with Edinburgh’s climate.
Five years ago my encounters with racism highlighted fundamental inadequacies in the Scottish Football Association’s ability to deal with instances of racial abuse in football matches.
Despite my team, Spartans, following protocol in terms of reporting the incident and testimonies of witnesses, the SFA dismissed the charges without a hearing. The absence of decency, firm management, and of a procedural framework ensured that the affair was ludicrously protracted and dealt with in an insensitive and incompetent manner.
In the end, it took a member of the Scottish Parliament to intervene and bring the case to the attention of the police before the culprit was charged on two counts of racially aggravated breach of the peace. He was fined £850.
Fortunately, the SFA have made significant progress with their legislation but I am still offended by their snub and the implication that I would simply concoct something of this gravity. While I support measures to penalise anyone found guilty of fabricating instances of abuse, experience has taught me that drawing attention to themselves in this context is the last thing players would want to do. Unfortunately, even in today’s increasingly cosmopolitan society there is no guarantee that racism will be taken seriously.
Racism will not disappear overnight and incidents of abuse must be dealt with however inconvenient this may prove for the powers that be. While the football authorities must be commended for their work with organisations such as Show Racism the Red Card, they must also be able to act with conviction when presented with instances of racism or the initiatives are at risk of being labelled PR stunts, full of empty rhetoric and lacking any real substance.
While an emphasis on education in schools as a means of combating racism is undoubtedly the way forward, this initiative will not succeed in isolation. It is all well and good teaching kids that racism is unacceptable but for them then to watch professionals engage in racial abuse and emerge unpunished sends a confusingly mixed message.
Football needs leaders who are up to pace with the reality of the world in which they operate. That, Mr Blatter, is something that cannot be denied.