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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As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred