In football, as in politics, Serbia still doesn't get it

Despite all the wars, bloodshed, victims, and hate, the country still can't come to terms with modernity.

What is wrong with Serbia? Last night it seemed as if all the work of UEFA at Euro 2012 to make football free of racism was undone. Serbs fans chanted monkey sounds at the black English player, Danny Rose. As they left the pitch, after the England Under-21 team's 1-0 victory, Serb players and team officials attacked the English visitors.

The England captain Jordan Henderson said, "There was a lot of racist abuse out there from the stands and a lot going on after the game, which is hard to take for the players." Stones and coins were thrown at the England players in addition to the racist abuse.

The facts seem indisputable, but in Serbia facts are what you want them to be. The Serb team’s technical director, Savo Milosevic, came into England’s dressing rom and apologised for "any behaviour that was unsavoury," Stuart Pearce, the England manager, said after the game. Now, in an on-so-Serbian piece of chutzpah, the Serb FA are calling for an investigation into the England team and denying that any racist incidents took place.

It is up to UEFA to decide whether they are serious about their campaign against racism. They worked closely with Rafael Pankowski, who is not only Poland’s leading writer on the far-right but also founder of a Polish and Europe-wide NGO dedicated to removing the racism and anti-Semitism that has disfigured European contests well into the 21st century, despite the large number of black players in club and national teams. UEFA stadium billboards kept flashing up anti-racism messages in June in a sign that Europe acknowledged there was a problem. Now the Serbs have set this work back a decade. UEFA should take swift action. If Rangers in Scotland can be relegated two divisions for getting their financial affairs out of order, Serbian club and national teams should be suspended from all UEFA competitions for the rest of this season. Harsh and cruel, maybe, but unless UEFA is prepared to stand up against racism in football, the Serbs who abused the black English player will walk cocky and tall that they can turn a football stadium into a source of race hate.

But is it any accident that the incident, and the Serb FA’s refusal to condemn it, happened in the week that the most prominent living Serb, Radovan Karadžić, told the International Tribunal at the Hague that he had nothing to apologise for over the actions carried out in Sarajevo or Srebrenica? At Srebrenica, 8,000 plastic handcuffs were prepared to tie the hands of the European Muslims selected to be killed by Serbs to teach others a lesson. The precise number of bullets, and catering vehicles for the executioners were brought to the site, where Serb excavators had carefully dug trenches for the bodies to fall into after they had been shot.

In 1970, Willy Brandt famously knelt at the Warsaw Ghetto to make as public and symbolic an apology as he could for the German crimes against Poles and Jews. Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand held hands at Verdun as they too said "never again". Today, as Karadzic struts his stuff in the Hague, the elected prime minister of Serbia, Ivica Dačić, a former aide of Slobodan Milošević, refuses to shake the hand of the prime minister of Kosovo, Hashim Thaçi. Belgrade refuses to recognise the existence of Kosovo as a legitimate nation state, even though nearly 100 nations and nearly all the world’s major democracies have established diplomatic relations with it. In another example of chutzpah, worthy of the Serb FA, Dačić said recently that Kosovo should be partitioned with a good chunk of its territory handed over to Serbia. There are regions of Serbia peopled by Albanians close to Kosovo, but the general rule in the Balkans is no more ethnic division.

But just as the Serb FA leaders feel they can flout the UEFA rules against racism, so too do Serb political leaders treat the European-wide agreement against further Balkans partition with contempt. Stefan Fuele, the amiable, soft-spoken EU Commissioner for enlargement, rebuked Dačić, and EU officials are tearing their hair out at the failure of Belgrade to declare a truce with Kosovo, deal with the elected Pristina government, and help move both countries onto an EU membership road, as William Hague has urged.

It is 25 years since Serbia’s most famous Milošević launched the disintegration of Yugoslavia with an aggressive nationalist speech in the heart of Kosovo. Despite all the wars, bloodshed, victims, and hate, it seems it will take a little longer before Serbia’s ruling elites, whether in football or politics, come to terms with modernity.

Denis MacShane was minister for the Balkans from 2001-2005. He is author of Why Kosovo Still Matters (Haus 2011) @denismacshane and www.denismacshane.com

Andros Townsend (C) of England separates his team-mate Danny Rose (L) and Sasa Markovic of Serbia as they argue after the Under 21 European Championship match between the two sides. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war