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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era