Should Millwall have been disqualified from the FA Cup?

Chants at The Den highlight football’s long-standing problem with racism.

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While Championship side Millwall’s 3-2 victory over the Premier League’s Everton represented one of the FA Cup’s shock results last weekend, that achievement has been soured by the ongoing police investigation into racist chants recorded at The Den. In a video shared widely on social media, some Millwall fans could be heard singing “I’d rather be a P*ki than a Scouse” in the home win over the Liverpool-based team.

Racism isn’t “just a Millwall thing”, the club’s chief executive Steve Kavanagh told the BBC in the game’s aftermath, but rather, he insisted, a problem “across society”. He asked: “If a person has gone and bought a top that says Millwall, does that make me responsible for that person? Or is society responsible for them?”

Kavanagh added: “There is a rise in racism so you will never win this… it’s an issue that is out there in society. We will take responsibility for our guys, but let’s find a way to try and work together to find different solutions.” And on Sunday, an official club statement said Millwall will ban anyone identified taking part in the chants “for life”.
 
Kavanagh’s comments, for the most part, are welcome, and he is right to point out that racism on the terraces is not exclusive to Millwall. Earlier this season, Chelsea suspended a group of supporters from attending matches while police investigated the alleged racial abuse of Manchester City’s Jamaican-born forward Raheem Sterling at Stamford Bridge.

But to say that football “will never win” its fight against racism is the sort of unhelpful sentiment that allows the problem to continue. That isn’t to suggest that Kavanagh has condoned racism – clearly, he hasn’t – but legislating for isolated incidents wears thin when you consider their frequency.

How many isolated incidents do football’s authorities need to realise that racism in the game is a historical and deep-rooted problem?  Direct instances, such as the chants at Millwall, are compounded by the implicit, institutional racism that blights the national game. The press play their part – reporters often hold ethnic minority footballers to different standards to their white counterparts – and the Football Association’s inconsistency on the length and nature of punishments for racism has rightly raised questions about the competence of the sport’s elder statesmen.

After a five-day trial at Westminster magistrates’ court in July 2012, former England captain John Terry was absolved of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand in a heated exchange during a Premier League match between Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers. Terry had been accused of calling Ferdinand a “f**king black c*nt”, a claim he denied, insisting to the court that he was simply repeating words he believed Ferdinand had said to him as they argued about a foul.

A separate FA hearing later found Terry guilty of racial abuse, imposing a four-game ban and a paltry – within the context of football at least – £220,000 fine on the then Chelsea centre back. It is worth noting the length of Terry’s punishment; a four-match ban is only slightly longer than the three-match suspension received for a straight red card.

Former Liverpool striker Luis Suarez, meanwhile, received an eight-match ban after being found guilty of racially abusing ex-Manchester United defender Patrice Evra in 2011, but was suspended for ten games after biting former Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic two years later.

Football, a cultural phenomenon which exacerbates tribalism, has the power to both unite and splinter communities. What should have been a mood-lifting celebration for Millwall – the underdogs had beaten one of the most expensively assembled teams in the top flight – is instead filed under the category of moments the club would rather forget.

Not every Millwall fan took part in the chants against Everton, but enough did to make the case for the club to be disqualified from the FA Cup this season. Banning a group of Millwall fans for life doesn’t really scream a message of zero-tolerance, especially as that group will likely only be replaced with more racists, unless harsher punishments are introduced. In insisting on only punishing a select few, the FA often miss the opportunity to enforce a more effective deterrent.

Kavanagh stressed the importance of  “football's place in society to educate people”, and while not every Millwall fan is to blame for last weekend’s unsavoury scenes, there is a lesson to be learned here about what is and isn’t acceptable. So, why don’t the FA teach it?

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman