Sol Campbell on the pitch. Photo: Getty
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Did Sol Campbell really miss out on the England captaincy because he was black?

Like Kanye West, Sol Campbell has the habit of making headline-hogging statements that allow us to evade wider and more uncomfortable questions – in this case, about institutional racism in football.

If Kanye West had played professional football, then he might have provided quotes like Sol Campbell. Campbell, who had a distinguished career for various clubs (most notably, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur) and his country, has contended that “if I was white, I would have been England captain for more than 10 years”. Campbell’s comments, which appear as extracts from his new biography in The Sunday Times, are damning of the Football Association, whom he describes as “institutionally racist”. He elaborates thus: “I think the FA wished I was white. I had the credibility, performance-wise, to be captain . . . I’ve asked myself many times why I wasn’t [captain]. I keep coming up with the same answer. It was the colour of my skin.”

Like Kanye West, Sol Campbell has the habit of making headline-hogging statements that allow us to evade wider and more uncomfortable questions. When Kanye, in an interview with BBC Radio One’s Zane Lowe, railed against racism in the fashion industry, his important point was lost in the familiar Kanye haze of outlandish egotism. Similarly, when Campbell remarked that racism has been and is a problem within football, he stated his case in a manner that has unfortunately made the entire issue far simpler to dismiss.

The thing about making accusations of racism, particularly those against organisations, is that it is very difficult to prove them at the best of times. Unfortunately for Campbell, who was wryly aware of the furore his remarks would attract, the facts as they stand are not strongly in his favour. He played for England for just over ten years, between 1996 and 2007, receiving 73 caps in that time; during that period, he played alongside David Beckham, Alan Shearer, Tony Adams, John Terry and Steven Gerrard, each of whom could at various times have considered themselves worthy of the captaincy. Campbell himself led England three times, more than Wayne Rooney or Frank Lampard, who have been handed the captain's armband twice each. Like Kanye, who imagines himself to be a visionary in the world of fashion, it may be that Campbell overestimates his ability as a leader in his chosen field.

But, but, but. There does still seem to be a persistent problem regarding racism within football; and that is evident from the cacophonous silence from many of Britain’s black footballers at vital moments. Let’s not forget that they felt so dismayed by their union’s handling of the issue that, as recently as October 2012, they were considering the launch of a breakaway organisation to represent their interests. It is unclear whether these preliminary discussions evolved into anything much more substantial but it is instructive that black footballers even thought them necessary. More interesting still is the secrecy in which they were conducted, as if they feared public reprisal if they voiced their grievances too openly. After all, this was 2012; a time when we should presumably be past such conversations, clandestine or otherwise. We have had black England captains; black English footballers are some of our most-loved characters and several of them may prove decisive in this season’s Premier League title race. What’s there to complain about?

Well, quite a lot, if we step back from the spectacle. As was pointed out to me on social media yesterday, it was only a handful of years before Campbell’s arrival as an international player that racism was alleged to be a factor in selection of the England team. As noted by Vivek Chaudhary in “Manager reveals England’s hidden racism”, an article that he wrote for the Guardian in 2004,

Wednesday’s lunch to mark the 10th anniversary of the football anti-racism group Kick It Out was buzzing with speculation about the identity of a former England manager who has alleged that during his tenure he was told by senior FA officials not to pick too many black players. The manager in question, whose identity is known to Digger and has a long history of closely working with some of England’s leading black players over the past 25 years, privately spoke about the incident at the lunch but refused to go public with his allegation. He claims that he was called into an office where two senior FA officials were present and they told him that his England team should be made up of predominantly white footballers. [My italics.]

It’s only a thought, but it’s worth wondering whether the only people who speak out are those who feel that they have nothing left to lose. Football is a very small world and those who consistently speak out of turn will find themselves swiftly excluded. It’s notable that this former England manager still did not feel comfortable, years after leaving his role, to say attach his name publicly to these allegations. Campbell’s claim that the FA is “institutionally racist” is not currently backed by the most compelling of evidence. However, it is a comment that has come at a particularly damaging time, following the FA’s award to Nicolas Anelka of a mere five-match ban for making the quenelle gesture. To quote the definition given in the Macpherson Report in 1999, institutional racism is:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people. [My italics.]

This is where allegations of institutional racism against the FA, and the sport of football in general, may gather some momentum. Many people may think that racism is merely the preserve of hooded men on horseback, but it’s not: it’s also something far more insidious, which is the failure to see people as suitable for positions of authority merely because of the colour of their skin. In some cases, it is a prejudice of which even those making such appointments may be unaware; but, of course, that does not make it any less detrimental to the ethnic-minority candidate in question. On this note, it was just last autumn that the FA faced implications of not only institutional racism but institutional sexism, having appointed a commission to consider the future of English football that consisted entirely of white men. As Heather Rabbatts, the FA’s first female director, objected in a letter to the commission’s chairman Greg Dyke:

By proceeding along this current path we are not only failing to reflect our national game but we are also letting down so many Black and Ethnic Minority people – players, ex-players, coaches and volunteers, who have so much to offer and are so often discouraged and disheartened by the attitudes they encounter. The FA should be leading by example not reinforcing entrenched attitudes. [My italics.]

Rabbatts’ letter, which is worth reading in full, is clearly something that she published as a last resort; which suggests that, for every Sol Campbell vaulting above the barricades in sensationalist fashion, there are very many more black people, very possibly with far more nuanced arguments than him, who are silent for fear of rocking the boat. However, looking at their under-representation in the game’s senior positions, it may well be that the boat could do with some rough seas. It is to be hoped that, lest Campbell be seen as a lone and poorly-substantiated voice of protest, they come forward to tell their stories.

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.