England – “The envy of less happier lands” but that doesn’t mean football has won the battle against racism

As a Premier League neutral, I was honest enough to say that I had a soft spot for Liverpool at the start of the season.  Being a child of the 80s, the shadow of Liverpool’s omnipotence loomed large.  Now living in Boston, there is also an affinity for the Reds here thanks to the John Henry/Red Sox connection.  I’m looking forward to seeing them here at Fenway this summer for sure.

But it’s hard not to be bitterly disappointed by the way the club have handled the recent (and ongoing) racism row involving Luis Suarez.  It’s been a dark period for English football over the last two or thee months. After years of many of us English fans being smug about how we have addressed racism in football, condescendingly shaking our heads at the behaviour of some fans in Italy and Spain, our naivety has been exposed.

I’m not suggesting that Liverpool should have hung the Uruguyan out to dry, but they should have ackowledged more clearly that racism on the field is not acceptable.  Backing up Suarez’s ludicrous explanation that his words were not derogatory was an insult to everybody who doesn’t want to see racism anywhere in football.  It’s not credible that during a heated on field exchange  that the words used were done so affectionately.  And even if that is the case, Suarez clearly needs to moderate his language to the conventions acceptable on an English football pitch and in British society, or accept the consequences. The club’s decision to let the players wear t-shirts in support of Suarez was a further terrible, pig-headed move, which simply illustrated that they did not think Suarez had done anything wrong and he was the victim in this whole sordid affair.

Things may have died down a little but Liverpool mush have been aware that Saturday’s fixture might revive the issue. So why not brief the manager to tread a fine line on questions regarding Patrice Evra, instead of reacting with misplaced righteous indignation to journalists’ questions. It was inevitable that Evra would get booed on Saturday, but for Dalglish to suggest that it was just banter and to equate it to himself getting booed seems to illustrate how out of touch some of the footballing world are.

This whole fiasco might be a symptom of the club’s PR being run by people who are supporters first and professionals second, but backing up the pathetic excuses of the player in this case was absurd.  If they had issued a statement saying simply that they denounce racism and that they were co-operating with the FA in its enquiry, much of the furore might have died down.  But they kept the story and the debate alive.  People make mistakes in the heat of the moment and say things they shouldn’t.  It doesn’t mean they should be lynched and never forgiven, but the important thing is to own up to it and confirm that it is not acceptable. Liverpool did not do this clearly enough and many have lost some respect for the club.

The whole issue was of course complicated by the John Terry and Anton Ferdinand issue, and it was again disappointing to see QPR’s owners encouraging Ferdinand to shake Terry’s hand, apparently echoing Sepp Blatter’s ridiculous advice.  Everybody seems to want to “put the whole thing behind them”, which seems pretty similar to brushing it under the carpet to me. Terry’s excuses seemed to be even more ridiculous than Suarez’s and we’ll see how that plays out in court this week.  I understand why the clubs decided to do away with the customary handshakes at the weekend (the site of all eleven QPR players snubbing Terry could certainly have stoked the tensions among fans) but this again does feel a little bit like ducking the issues at stake here.

Whatever the decision in Terry’s magistrates court case on Wednesday it will cause another stir.  Hopefully it will be the catalyst for the game in England to consider what else can be done to kick racism out of football, and not to rest on its laurels, apparently happy that there is less racism than in other European stadia. We should surely be aiming for none.

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