John Terry's not guilty, but football's still in trouble

Everyone has to stop racism from blighting our showpiece sport.

Football's coming back. The adverts for the new Premier League season will be hitting our screens soon, promising the usual drama, more amazing goals and plenty of action. What they won't mention is the ugly face of the game - the claims of racism which have tainted the family-friendly image of the self-proclaimed 'best league in the world'.

After several months during which ill feeling festered on both sides, the Anton Ferdinand-John Terry case has finally concluded with Terry being found not guilty of the charges. With the case coming so soon after the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra incident, which saw the Liverpool player banned for eight matches, we have to ask the question  whether this represents a crisis in the elite game or just two unfortunate, isolated incidents.

Terry's words were caught on camera and seemed to be decipherable to most amateur lipreaders - although the sound of what he said was not recorded. His defence, which was upheld, was that he was using them sarcastically, claiming that Ferdinand had wrongly accused him of racial abuse.

Both players admitted laying into each other with swearing and trash talk - not doing a great service for the sponsors and brands who attach themselves so keenly to the English Premier League, or being terrific role models for the millions of young fans who look up to their favourite stars as players (if not necessarily as people).

The incident had wider implications too. Ferdinand's brother, the former England captain Rio, found himself booed when he played against Chelsea - and there were later suggestions that the bad blood between the two was behind England's decision not to take both players to the tournament in Ukraine and Poland. Terry was found not guilty of the offence for which he was charged, so let that be an end to the matter. It shows that England's decision to keep him in the Euro 2012 squad, presuming innocence, was probably the right one.

The not guilty verdict for the former England captain will leave many - players, sponsors and those with a vested interest in seeing the game making a healthy profit - breathing a sigh of relief that the top flight wasn't tainted by this trial. Perhaps they can think that racism on the pitch can be relegated to a misunderstanding, or a vendetta. But that doesn't mean that racism is never, was never, and will never be a problem.

The Terry-Ferdinand spat came soon after the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra affair, which poisoned what was already arguably the fiercest rivalry in the Premier League: between Liverpool and Manchester United.

The United skipper accused Suarez of making a racist remark; the Uruguayan defended himself and said it was a cultural misunderstanding of the term "negrito"; his clubmates wore T-shirts in support ahead of a match; but Suarez was found guilty. When the two sides met again in the league, at Old Trafford, Evra wildly celebrated United's at the final whistle right in front of Suarez. Again, it was hard for anyone to find the moral high ground.

Gone are the days in England when the major focus of racism in football was off the pitch, where disgraceful racist chanting, banana-throwing and abuse were a sad reality for many black players. But while that kind of behaviour has mainly been eradicated from the terraces, it's now the players who face closer scrutiny.

It's probably the case that trash-talking has spilled over into hate speech for many years, but the issue has come to a head now, and the authorities must be seen to take a stand. When there are 40 or more cameras trained on the action at top-flight games, the top players' every cough and spit is likely to be broadcast. There is no use in pretending it hasn't happened, or hoping that the problem will go away.

Some will argue that victims of racism should just - to use that horrible phrase - "man up" and get on with it rather than complaining. Some will say that psyching out an opponent is part and parcel of the game, like sledging in cricket - and there may be some merit in that. But it has to be made clear that certain lines cannot be crossed, and certain types of abuse are completely unacceptable - not on a park, not on a pitch, not in a stadium in front of 70,000 paying punters.

Don't blame the victims for coming forward. Don't blame the cameras for zooming in on the players' faces. And don't hide behind fandom and club loyalty to protect "your" players when they behave appallingly - if you do, you are just as guilty as they are. Everyone has to work together to stop racism from blighting our showpiece sport, and it starts with the fans. If some will continue to believe that 'their' players have done nothing wrong, and line up to defend those who have done indefensible things, we will get nowhere.
 

John Terry at Westminster Magistrates court in London. Photograph: Getty Images
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser