Three days into a new year and the rhetoric on racism within football has begun, following the suspension of a friendly match between AC Milan and Pro Patria after players walked off in protest at racist chants. The gesture, widely lauded, renders the winner in all of this; Football. And the loser; Football. Excusing the phrase, it seems fair to say the football appears to have won the battle but is losing the war.
The November 2011 Terry-Ferdinand saga kicked off a long chain of events that brought race relations within football into sharp focus. With behavioural, cultural, and social attitudes within sport merely a reflection of society, the following twelve months witnessed the reemergence of a fading debate that for long periods, had been largely overlooked. For too long some would say.
Sport and society come as a package. At the core of one lies the need for the other. Society needs sport for several reasons; for entertainment, for the discipline and spirit of healthy competition it instills, the community projects it facilitates and avails its high-profile athletes to, and most crucially – the economic benefits it provides in the form of jobs and taxes.
Sport needs society to survive – literally. Otherwise, it will go bankrupt.
But with this dynamic relationship comes an overlap that could become unhealthy; when society falls asleep on crucial social issues, and the prosperity of sport – in this case football – results in the wider coverage of society’s inaction.
The creation of the Premier League in 1992 – its excitement and undeniable entertainment value – saw the gradual influx of wealthy foreign investors. Of the 20 clubs currently in the Premiership, 11 are under foreign ownership. This large concentration of wealth in the Premiership resulted in the increased financing of foreign transfers and inevitably, the multicultural nature of top-flight football in England.
While we have been blessed to witness the technique and flair on display from around the world, some have argued the influx of foreign players is partly to blame for the increase in football’s race-related incidents.
Besides the obvious – that no proof exists to grant this any validity – one tends to disagree. Rather, it appears the large pools of capital currently attached with the sport resulted in a shift in focus to financial checks and balances, and measures to increase its global appeal.
Much was made about the finances raised from the Premier League’s sale of TV broadcasting rights. For domestic operators, it cost a combined total of just over £3bn (US$5bn) for three seasons; the overseas rights are expected to cost about £2bn (US$3.2bn) for the same period.
These significant figures simply reaffirming the League’s worldwide appeal. What no one seemed to latch on to though – or at least quick enough – was the obligation and responsibility such high demand would place on football.
The ultimate question remains: is football responsible for the race-related cases it has witnessed? Surely, the fact that racial slurs occurred on a football pitch does not equate to an implication of guilt. It can certainly be held accountable for the actions taken in response to such offences but surely, cannot take responsibility for its causes.
Of course, football has a part to play in punishing offenders, educating spectators, and the foreign players it brings to its leagues; on the culture, discipline and acceptable standards (for instance, in the circumstances surrounding the Suarez-Evra case).
However, as stated, social and cultural attitudes in sport merely mirror society hence, the extensive media coverage football receives only highlighted a social issue frequently experienced across the country.
During the course of the Summer Olympics, and especially with the culmination of Super Saturday, it was empowering to see that skin colour was not a topic for discussion – or even worth a mention. Some of the Games’ greatest and most memorable moments were captured with black athletes in sharp focus.
Nevertheless, when Usain Bolt, David Rudisha, Mo Farah, and Jessica Ennis crossed their finish lines, they were citizens of the world, simply representing a dream, a belief, a possibility, and in that moment – a reality.
Experiencing the welcoming, jovial, and all-round harmonious atmosphere during the Games, the contrasts between the Olympics and Football were inevitable. But then again, how many who filled the Olympic stadium over the summer would be found in the stadia across the different tiers of football on a winter weekend? Such comparisons were rather knee-jerk and at best, shortsighted.
Taking a moment to consider how often the Olympics are brought to London (at the very least, once every 36 years in this case) and add to that, the number of visitors who came to London for the spectacle and probably filled a sizeable portion of the venues. Finally, consider the admission prices and the generally accepted difficulty in purchasing tickets; it is fanciful to believe the spectators at Olympic events are the same who file into the stadium at a mid-week evening game at Barnsley or Sunderland.
As unpopular as it may sound or appear, the make-up of the crowds at both events could not be more dissimilar. Nevertheless, what should be indistinguishable, as a spectator, is the overwhelming recognition of talent during the Games regardless of race, religion, sexuality, and every other possible discriminatory element.
After all, these constitute its founding principles; and as the Olympics symbolise the pinnacle of any sport, these principles should transcend each and every sporting discipline it embodies.
Whether the rise in race-related incidents were / are as a result of offenders mindlessly jumping on the bandwagon, or the public simply being alerted to an ever-present evil, the comparisons between the Olympics and Football may be rather rich, but the latter has a lifetime to learn.