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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage