Steven Gutwin
Naked Politics Blogger

Following an incredible 2018, support for England’s national football team is at its highest for over a decade. Yet despite the manner of their latest victory over Montenegro in Podgorica, a familiar recurring problem overshadowed the game; racist abuse from football fans.

Raheem Sterling called on UEFA to enact ‘real punishment’ for racism whilst UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin decried the incident as a disaster.

In the midst of all the public and media outrage that surrounded this, a very thought-provoking perspective was put forward by John Barnes. He claims that much of what is being said is hypocritical and that banning Montenegro or some equivalent action will not solve the issue because racism first and foremost is a societal issue. He also rightly points out that it hasn’t been eradicated in the UK, let alone the rest of Europe.

John Barnes, ex-England footballer continues his fight against racism in football.

But does that make holding other countries to account over there position on racism futile? 

Kick It Out, a football equality charity reported an increase in discrimination between the 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons and over half of the incidences were classified as racism. There have been number this season too, including a banana skin thrown on to the pitch during the North London derby and Raheem Sterling bravely speaking about his abuse from Chelsea fans. A problem that is also prevalent in the lower leagues, where there are no cameras and fans tend to be much closer to the players.

However, racism in football and other sports is not exclusively a UK issue.

In Italy, Kalidou Koulibaly, a Senegalese footballer, was subjected to monkey chants by sections of the Inter Milan fanbase in a game that made a mockery of UEFA’s anti-racism protocols.

Before the 2018 world cup, Russia saw a rise in racist and homophobic chants involving abuse aimed not just at foreign teams and players but against naturalised Russians as well.

In Brazil and Sweden, BAME players were subject to abuse simply because their team lost in a major tournament.

Worryingly, Germany, like many countries, has denied racism as a general problem despite three men being arrested in a recent friendly match for such abuse and the mourning of a neo-Nazi in a lower league game.

Further evidence that sports governing bodies need to do more in the fight against racism comes in the mixed response from the footballers themselves. Whilst Sterling has taken the role of figurehead in the anti-racism movement and many other footballers come out in support of tackling racism, an Italian footballer claimed a teammate was partially to blame for racist chanting against himself, whilst a Russian footballer said it was laughable to have black players in the Russian national team.

Juventus Star, Moisie Kean, does his talking on the pitch in response to racist abuse from fans

Such attitudes hinder the tackling of racism in football because they are supposed to be role models so fans with racists attitudes may feel empowered to continue racist abuse. As is the case with society, the footballing community will be divided over the importance of the issue and ways to tackle racism, so I believe it’s up to sports governing bodies to present a new message in the fight against racism.    

One final reason that it is up to the governing bodies to act on the latest spout of racist incidents in football stadiums is that it needs to exert strong leadership and show it can deal with crises in this sport.

A number of solutions have been suggested by FIFA and UEFA in dealing with racism, including stadium closures, fines and more recently, pitch walkouts. Nevertheless, they continue to react to incidents of racism rather than having a clear, coherent and proactive strategy. The leadership that is required to tackle racism in football can come from society, exemplified by Raheem Sterling. However, without the support of the governing bodies, real change in attitudes may not occur.        

Racism in sport is still a massive problem in the UK but it is at least as big a problem in the rest of Europe and beyond. Furthermore, whilst racism does still need to be tackled in society, its important to bear in mind that governing bodies and other sporting institutions resemble a significant part of our society. Therefore, their actions over the coming months with regard to the latest incident in Podgorica can be more significant than ever in the fight against racism.

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Last Update: October 11, 2019