When billionaire John W. Henry and the Fenway Sports Group (FSG) bought Liverpool Football Club in 2010 they knew they were buying their way into the heart of English, indeed European football culture. What perhaps they hadn’t bargained for was the persistence of racism in the game. Now they know all about it.
Last weekend Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez returned to the game after serving an eight match ban incurred for racially abusing Manchester United’s Senegalese-born Patrice Evra. The opponents on his return were, coincidentally, Manchester United and Patrice Evra. In the pre-match line up Suarez refused to shake Evra’s hand when it was offered. It was action that was widely condemned including by UK Sports Minster Jeremy Hunt who described it as “incredibly depressing.”
The following day, after the American owners intervened, contrition poured forth from Anfield, Liverpool’s stadium. Speaking to the BBC a representative of the Fenway group said “No-one is more important than the club…Apologies were necessary.”
Already at the center of the soccer world, Fenway’s owners are now moving in the highest political circles. Prime Minister David Cameron has called a summit on racism on football for later this month, with the intention, as his sports minister said, of preventing football’s return to the “bad old days”.
The issue of race was already convulsing the English Football Association (FA) the previous week. John Terry, England and Chelsea captain, was to be prosecuted for racial abuse directed toward Anton Ferdinand in a game played last year. Surprisingly, the date of the trial was set for after England’s involvement in the European Championships being played in Poland and Ukraine this summer.
With this kind of accusation hanging over Terry, the Football Association decided to strip him of the captaincy. Two days later Fabio Capello, the Italian coach of the English national team, went on TV in Italy and said that he didn’t agree with this, that Terry was innocent till proven guilty and that he should have retained the captaincy. In the ensuing hullabaloo, Capello quit and England has neither coach nor captain.
On the one hand, Liverpool’s American owners should not be surprised that sport provides a public theater for these issues and conflicts. From Jackie Robinson breaking the color bar in Major League Baseball to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, race has been a central narrative of American sports for over a century. The struggle to eliminate stereotyping and discrimination in the labor market has been publicly fought out over coaching appointments in the major leagues and the debate over the absence of black quarterbacks. The Rooney Rule that requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching jobs was introduced only 9 years ago, in 2003.
On the other hand, Fenway’s managers may way well be surprised by the extent and the crudity of racism in European football and the indifference of the authorities. The terraces of Poland and Ukraine are adorned with imagery of white power and anti-Semitism, the iconography of Klu Klux Klan and the Waffen SS. Black players are regularly abused in Italy and Spain and almost no action is ever taken. In 2004, Luis Aragones, Spain’s national team coach was caught on camera calling Frenchman Thierry Henry a “black s***” and kept his job.
England has its problems but it is not indifferent to the issue of racism.
The “bad old days” to which Cameron referred were the 1980s and early 1990s when English crowds regularly abused black players with an unpleasant repertoire that included monkey grunting and throwing bananas on the pitch. Far-right parties were known to recruit and organize in this milieu. After twenty years of educational and campaigning work by the Football Association and independents organizations like Kick it Out! these are now very rare occurrences in English football.
However, what these campaigns failed to do was far get beyond the fans. So far, the management of clubs and the culture of the professional dressing room have been deemed off limits. Consequently, black board members, professional coaches and senior administrators are very thin on the ground. British Asians are well represented in the grassroots of the game but are not breaking through into the higher levels of the game. As the events the last week have shown there is a high level of tolerance for a crude casual racism amongst parts of the professional game.
The Fenway Sports Group, by contrast, have shown themselves intolerant of racist abuse. Now they are, in effect, engaged in Britain’s social and political conversation. It will be interesting to see if they are as intolerant of the wider forms of bias and discrimination that persist in English football.
David Goldblatt is currently a visiting professor at Pitzer College in California