Kalidou Koulibaly’s failed appeal against his controversial red card is just the latest in a recent series of footballing brushes with racism.
There was a moment during the 2018 World Cup where England seemed different. It wasn’t the unusually extended heat wave the nation was experiencing, nor the team’s great performances at the tournament. No, this specifically was a difference in feeling towards the England team. A feeling, that for 2 weeks, everyone seemed to put all their differences and political discord aside in a unified show of support for the national side not seen since the 90s. Football commentators were (rightly) keen to point out how this young and diverse team were the perfect representation of modern Britain. Their success was seen as a triumph of multiculturalism in uncertain political times – even the tabloids put the knives normally aimed at Raheem Sterling away for once. Racism in English football was no more.
Fast forward to December and the picture looked far less rosy. All within a month of one another, a Tottenham supporter threw a banana skin at Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Raheem Sterling was racially abused at Stamford Bridge and a further set of Chelsea fans were suspected of performing anti-Semitic chants during a Europa League game. UEFA have now charged these Chelsea fans, but the Italian Football Federation (IFF) were not so generous last week, when they confirmed the rejection of Napoli’s appeal against Koulibaly’s red card that he received for protesting against racist abuse in their 1-0 defeat to Inter Milan on 26 December. The vast majority of the football world has been quick to condemn all of these actions and, in particular, come out in support of Sterling, who has faced his own personal battles against systemic racism for years. One common thread between almost all these responses, however, is a refusal to confront racism’s place in football; English football in particular. The events were dismissed with assertions that they were ‘like something from the 1970s,’ that had ‘no place in the modern game;’ nothing more than isolated incidents which had been left behind by all, both in football and wider society.
This misses the point entirely. While we may no longer be readily accustomed to witnessing this kind of abuse every week, it doesn’t mean that these views have disappeared entirely. Football matches exist in a microcosm, where behaviour that would not be tolerated anywhere else is not only accepted, but actively encouraged. Yes, all fans know that racist abuse will result in a lifetime ban and likely conviction, but when tens of thousands of people are all screaming in unified rage week in week out, some masks inevitably drop and their prejudices manage to slip out. It is no coincidence that there are still no openly gay footballers in the English Football League. Football may be a facilitator for some of these views, but the problems go far deeper.
In an interview with the BBC, Ben Holman, of the anti-racism charity, Show Racism the Red Card, had this to say:
“Racism isn’t a problem intrinsic to football. These fans are at a football match for two hours a week, but for the other 166 are members of society, taking the bus, going to work.”Source: BBC Sport
This hits every nail on the head. Pundits and journalists cannot expect these incidents to vanish from football, until systemic racism and casual prejudice are addressed in the wider British conversation. A conversation where almost 50% of the FTSE 100 still have no non-white board members; a culture in which black citizens are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts; and a footballing dialogue where Paul Pogba and Raheem Sterling are treated by their own, media-specified standards. While admittedly taking place overseas, Koulibaly’s failed appeal represents the apex of this issue. It clearly demonstrates an official view of total apathy and sets the precedent that a few ‘bad apples’ are nothing for any governing body to be concerned about in a wider context. Napoli’s passionate club statement on the matter reaffirms this point.
The banana skin throwing Tottenham fan and anti-Semitic Chelsea supporters won’t behave like that in all walks of life, but they might engage in casually prejudice ‘banter’ after the game. I’m sure certain pundits would refute any suggestion that they could possibly be racist, and yet they’ll continue to belittle Pogba regarding how he decides to live his life as a young, black footballer. Many simply don’t take these things seriously and until that passive culture changes, football will continue to be undermined. If the World Cup really was a triumph of multiculturalism, then the months since have been damning indictment of how far modern society still needs to come.