“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.