Now John Terry has departed, the pressure is all on the FA

Muddying the waters of sport’s great taboo does no one any favours.

 

"We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination."

Sepp Blatter, November, 2011

Ten months is a long time in football.

This weekend, the same people who called for Sepp Blatter to resign from his post as the head of FIFA for suggesting that victims of racist abuse should “shake hands” with the perpetrators, have forced Patrice Evra into doing just that when he took Luis Suarez’s hand before Manchester United’s game with Liverpool at Anfield.

The gesture brought widespread acclaim across several media outlets.

Former Liverpool hero Robbie Fowler went so far as to suggest that the pair should have come together and each lay some sort of tribute in the memory of the 96 fans who lost their lives at Hillsborough 23 years ago.

The events of 15 April 1989 were undoubtedly tragic, painful and a source of great anger for different parties but you cannot use it to try and paper over an issue that goes back even further than the terracing problems around Europe throughout the 1980s.

To specifically ask Evra and Suarez to acknowledge each other makes a mockery of the indignation from every corner that surrounded the Liverpool striker’s vocal outburst last year. Expressing sorrow, regret and sympathy at the events of Hillsborough is one thing, but hoping it can resolve all ills between the two clubs and forcing two of the main protagonists into a ham-handed gesture is naïve and painfully unrealistic.

Did it make any difference? After the tributes from Ian Rush, Sir Bobby Charlton, Steven Gerrard and Ryan Giggs, it took all of 35 minutes for some small sections of Anfield to start booing Patrice Evra for his role in the Suarez racism row. So much for unity and forgiveness.

The wounds of a rivalry that has existed for over 100 years cannot be magically repaired by sorrow - no matter how tragic and desperate an event it was.

Late last night, on the eve of his Football Association misconduct hearing for allegedly racially abusing Anton Ferdinand in a league fixture last year, John Terry called time on his England career. The Chelsea captain suggested the charge, pursued after he was cleared of the same offence at Westminster Magistrates’ Court over the summer, made his position within the national side “untenable”.

I believe that during his trial Terry would have been best placed to illustrate just how often racist language is used in the professional game and demonstrate to all just how much of a problem he believed it to be, rather than focus solely on his own plight.

The problem is that, regardless of indignant suggestions to the contrary, we all know that racist abuse is prevalent in the game.  

No amount of independent reports or calls from government will hammer this message home. Inducing players to visually respect each other for the benefit of the cameras serves only to further the Premier League brand rather than actually facilitate an improvement in race relations.

The open displays of racism and xenophobia that were common place 20 or 30 years ago in this country, and still visibly dog other European nations, have diminished, but it would be naïve of everyone to believe that the incidents involving Suarez and Terry represent a sudden resurgence in such abuse.

Despite this, the English FA and wider media have struggled to accurately define how racism should be tackled.

Can Suarez be rehabilitated in English football? Does every Evra handshake now represent some sort of acceptance of racism? Is Sepp Blatter’s utopian vision for world football vindicated because the FA and Premier League refuse to call a halt to pre-match handshakes and try and compel everyone to respect each other?

These are all questions and problems that should have been answered before the first charge was administered under this current crackdown to push racism out of the game. Because these questions remain to be answered, the FA’s stance is irreparably weakened.

As John Terry prepares to face his personal hearing with the prize he holds dearest, his England shirt, now no longer something he can lose, the pressure is all on the FA.

The independent disciplinary board are in an impossible position. Regardless of their decision, it is clear that Anton Ferdinand will not suddenly start shaking the hand of his former friend simply because it is found that Terry has no case to answer.

The hearing is not going to suddenly bring up a barrage of new evidence - the only difference will be that the standard of proof required to find Terry guilty is significantly reduced. 

If it is decided that Terry has no case to answer, how long before Ferdinand’s prolonged refusal to shake hands lands him with a charge of bringing the game into disrepute?

Similarly, what if, no longer compelled by the emotion of Hillsborough, Patrice Evra decides he cannot forgive Luis Suarez for his abuse - what course of action can be taken then?

In the last 12 months, the FA have allowed Fabio Capello to resign over the farcical way in which Terry was stripped of the captaincy and then enabled his replacement, Roy Hodgson, to publicly suggest that he would prefer it if the former captain of the national team was found not guilty- how is that for degrading the integrity of the organisation’s disciplinary process?

The media spotlight may be on John Terry this week, but the most difficult questions must be answered by the Football Association. 

John Terry. Photograph: Getty Images

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.