Racism shouldn’t exist in football. No discrimination should. That much goes without saying, and yet as seen when England faced Montenegro in Podgorica on Monday, it still very much does even at the highest levels of the game, and is the result of a much wider societal issue.
I took genuine time in debating whether or not to write this article. In truth, I actually didn’t want to at first.
However, racism has once again reared it’s ugly head and become such a major issue this week in football that it feels wrong to ignore. And ignoring it would be part of the problem, too.
Then former England international John Barnes came out and gave his thoughts on the issue, and spoke with huge amounts of sense and perspective given to the problem. His statements weren’t reactionary from the Montenegro game – as I hope this article too is not – and instead tried to refocus the attention that match caused back onto tackling the wider problem; racism not just in football, but in wider society – because, ultimately, that is where it all stems from.
Now, I know I am hardly the authority on racism in football. I’m a white guy with virtually no conceivable footballing ability – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all look at and consider the potential solutions to combating this inherent problem that spoils what is a wonderful game.
If we look away from the problem, or are too scared to approach it head-on and debate and consider genuine solutions, then we do nothing to help improve the current situation.
Football should be for everyone, and that extends not just to racism but all kinds of discrimination. It has no place in the modern game – and we should all be seeking to eradicate it.
This is where I think Barnes has it right. The racism that was on display in Podgorica, and has been on display at grounds around the world (including in England this season) does not suddenly manifest in people once they walk through those turnstiles.
Barnes told BBC Sport: “It can’t be tolerated but we’ve got it the wrong way around. You can’t get rid of it in football before you get rid of it in society.
“Try to figure out a way to stop people wanting to boo because someone is black. Let’s look at what’s going on in society and try to tackle it.”
And that’s where FIFA, as well as the governing bodies, national associations and clubs themselves, come into the matter.
Fines simply don’t work. We all understand this – it’s a fact that’s been proven time and time again by the fact racism is still very much alive in many stadiums around the continent.
You can fine an association or a club, but at the end of the day that money doesn’t come out of the wallets of the racists that brought about the fine, and so its simply not going to make them change their ways.
However, the other extreme end of the spectrum I continually see being banded around is this idea of an ultimate punishment; expulsion from the tournament their qualifying for. In Montenegro’s case, that would be EURO 2020.
Personally (and I am aware that this is likely an unpopular opinion) I think that this is the wrong approach. While yes, it does send a strong message to the racists, it also hugely penalises the players and innocent fans of those countries.
I don’t believe every person in Montenegro is a racist. I don’t believe every person in that stadium in Podgorica was a racist. Nor do I believe that the majority of those players on that pitch representing Montenegro are racist.
Yet, they would also lose out with expulsion. Badly.
They would see all of their efforts, in all of their qualifying games, scrubbed from the records because of the actions of a minority – a repugnant, vocal minority, yes – but still a minority.
There, instead, needs to be a middle ground. And there is one, that is already possible with the current legislation in place: the stadium ban.
It’s what Raheem Sterling called for following the England game on Monday, and I do believe it to be the most logical and impactful way of punishing countries and clubs whose fans display any kind of discriminatory behaviour.
The reason for that is simple. It still retains a powerful message, that if your supporters are incapable of being respectful and accepting of all people equally within football, no matter race, sexuality or anything else, well then simply you won’t be allowed any supporters present. Games can even be played at neutral venues, or back in the country of the opposition side instead.
It forces that country to make changes beyond just football. If you want supporters back in your grounds, then you need to prove clearly that steps – and more crucially, actual progress – is being made off the pitch. Tackle discrimination, then you can return to watching your team play.
If they show no signs of improving, then they’ll have no chance of getting back into their grounds to watch their team. If that means for 10 years, the fans are banned from watching their side, then so be it, but you would almost certainly start to see change – and at a societal level too, as Barnes is calling for.
At the end of the day, football fans want to watch football. The clue is in the name.
If a generation grows up not being able to watch their national team beyond on the TV screens because of racism, knowing that to get it back they cannot be racist, then there is a real reason for them to change.
It’s not the fastest solution, but its the one with the most long-term impact.
It also doesn’t hurt the players, and I do believe that to be another key issue to be considered when calling for the expulsion of a team.
Majority, if not all, of those players on the Montenegrin side against England on Monday were likely not racists. Racism in football these days, at the higher levels, largely (though definitely not exclusively) comes from the terraces rather than the pitch.
There are still players that do use disgusting discriminatory language and gestures, yes, but they are becoming fewer and fewer.
That is because there are real, firm punishments for players caught doing so. Lengthy bans can come for such incidents, and they should be made even tougher. Reporting of these incidents is becoming easier and more common too, and that needs to continue to improve.
With player-to-player abuse, it’s easier to tackle because you can narrow down and target the guilty individual. That means that the rest of the players on that team shouldn’t suffer, if they have partaken in any kind of racial abuse themselves; only the guilty player or players.
Going back to team expulsion, that’s why I don’t agree with it as the approach going forwards. Instead, let’s weed out any racist players, and instead let those players left – who we know are not racist – still compete for their country, a source of national pride for any athlete.
If unacceptable fan behaviour means that they can only do so in empty stadiums, or away from home soil, then so be it. However, they should still have the right to pull on their national jersey all the same.
It simply comes down to perspective. It’s easy as English fans to vilify Montenegro after the blatant racism of some of their fans, and through impassioned anger call for extreme action, but it’s a matter of perspective. Innocent Montenegrin fans and players that are not racist – and there are many of those that likely exist – would rightly feel hard done by.
Chelsea fans had a racism scandal earlier this season. I don’t think the rest of Chelsea supporters would feel particularly kindly towards the idea of a few people’s actions getting them expelled from the Premier League. It won’t even cross the topic of conversation, and yet it is at its heart the exact same situation. But, being an English club side in the top-flight, it comes with a very different inherent perspective when people look at the situation.
There isn’t a magic fix to racism in football. Nor an easy solution to be found, as much as I wish that there was, and there will sadly always be a handful of idiots that think it is okay to use discriminatory language, gestures or behaviour towards others.
However, there are certainly ways that the situation can be improved, and punishments that can be brought in to offer a real deterrent, and look to help force change, whilst still taking into reasonable consideration those who are innocent to the problem.
Yet, at the end of the day, with all that set aside, and as John Barnes said, football’s problem with racism cannot be fixed before it is tackled in wider society.
As I said earlier in this article, racism doesn’t manifest itself at the turnstile. It’s already in the fans before they enter.
So, if we are serious about putting an end to the problem, then we need to address the problem far beyond the football stadium.