Written on: 23. 11. 2011 in the category: news

Anti-racist competition enters darker waters

BASIL D’Oliveira had a perfect sense of timing: as a batsman, his late cuts and his drives to cover were the sweetest essays in synchrony.

His was a royally serene presence on the cricket pitch, almost like Henry V amongst his troops the night before Agincourt. That there could have ever been an international row about his “race” shows what dark and incomprehensible times we’ve left behind (notwithstanding matters in Naas, which I might come to later this week). And Basil D’Oliveira timed his departure just as a new international row erupted over race, this time over the words from that sleazy buffoon, the FIFA Chairman Sepp Blatter.

Now, even sleazy buffoons can get it right sometimes. Asked on CNN whether racism on the soccer pitch was a problem, he replied: “I would deny it. There is no racism. There is maybe one of the players towards another — he has a word or a gesture, which is not the correct one. But the one who is affected by that, he should say that this is a game. We are in a game and at the end of the game, we should shake hands, and this can happen, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination.”

This was preposterously inflated by Clarke Carlisle, chairman (we are not yet obliged to call him chairperson, but that day is probably not far off) of the English Professional Footballers Association as “giving ‘carte blanche’ that racism is acceptable”. Carte blanche, no less: too droll for words.

Actually Blatter seems to be right: a culture of racism is not a big problem amongst the players themselves (not least because opinions of any kind are rare enough amongst modern footballers). Do footballers verbally abuse one another? Yes, they do. Are they adults? Sort of. Have we all heard: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”?

At the heart of much of the anti-racism row in soccer is the belief that black players are uniquely and irreparably vulnerable to personal racist abuse. (I say “black” only in deference to popular usage about people who are usually brown). The trigger word here is “nigger”. Now it is just a word, that’s all. Anyone who has seen an Eddie Murphy film, or ‘The Wire’ on television, knows that African-Americans say it routinely about one another. As the wonderful American comic Reginald D Hunter — who by race is authorised to say it — declared, it can sometimes be OK for white people to call a black person a “nigger”, provided they’re not in police uniform.

Is it worse for a black player from the Ivory Coast to be called a nigger to his face than a white player from Dublin to be called a Mick, or a white player from Norwich to be called a honkey? Certainly it is, if you think Africans are uniquely vulnerable, and need to be protected; which is merely another form of racist condescension and apart-hood, which after all is the meaning of apartheid. For “nigger” doesn’t possess some voodoo power only when used by whites, but not by blacks. Moreover, footballers — like most young men — verbally abuse one another. But that doesn’t mean footballers should invoke the law when they hear words they don’t like. Yes, we all know that words can have multiplier effects: which is why in 1942, Eisenhower told US troops in Britain that they could call British soldiers Limeys, and they could call them bastards, but they couldn’t call them Limey bastards. I doubt if many GIs paid much attention. Young men compete; it’s in their nature to be aggressive in both manner and language.

Racist chants from the crowd are altogether different from personal abuse on the pitch, because they can be both an authoriser for and a prelude to mob violence. But chants need not be racist to be revolting: Barcelona fans — incredibly — regularly taunted Real Madrid fans about the 80 dead of the Madrid railway bombings. Which reminds us that soccer can arouse some pretty evil, non-racist emotions in that lethal thing, the mob.

The Blatter affair is another symptom of the new cultural orthodoxy in Anglophonia, in which there is an endless holier than thou competition for the title of being the most anti-racist person in sight. Such professional anti-racism contests usually involve feigned indignation, misquotations and historical ignorance. “I am outraged that Sepp Blatter approves of slave galleys, cotton plantations and overseers with bullwhips,” fumed Mervyn Whinge of Selchester United. “I thought that kind of stuff ended when Nelson Mandela liberated Auschwitz.”

Racism be damned. Players of West African origin are now set to dominate world football, through their sharper soccer brains, their superior abilities and their physique. Crying out “You black bastard” to the departing back of the dark brown African who is twice as skilful, who speaks three languages as opposed to his 1.5, and who doesn’t feel the need to get hammered on 20 tequila slammers to enjoy himself, might soon be the only weapon remaining for the hapless white BrIrish defender left floundering in the mud. That’s not racism; that’s despair.