Ian Birrell: Our national sport shares our national blindness

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The Independent Online

Surely even the grumpiest republican struggled to begrudge the community spirit of these past few days. There is something moving when nations find a sense of togetherness, whatever the trigger. Yet one thing has been abundantly clear from the scenes we have witnessed: this country has changed irrevocably in 60 years. Look at the faces beneath the bunting. It is glaringly obvious we live in a multi-racial society.

Perhaps this is why, amid the festivities, self-congratulatory clichés about tolerance poured down harder than the rain. Yet rumbling away on the back pages of newspapers has been a story demonstrating the lack of room for such complacency.

For those that don't follow football, let me explain. John Terry, a supremely talented centre back but a singularly unpleasant character, faces trial next month over claims he racially abused another player. The alleged victim is the brother of Rio Ferdinand, another supremely talented centre back. Now injury-struck England, on the eve of Euro 2012, is short of defenders – yet instead of picking Ferdinand, one of our greatest players in a decade, it called up a reserve full-back from a mid-table team. Why does this matter? Simple. It sends out the message that if you dare raise the issue of racism, even your family can suffer the consequences. The suggestion that Ferdinand was not picked for "footballing reasons" insults our intelligence; he will not be playing because it was impossible to have this pair on the pitch together, given the bad blood, and the national team sided with a man accused of racism rather than the alleged victim's brother.

Football has, alongside the monarchy, become a key part of Britain's global brand. It has, however, struggled with racism. And not just on the terraces. Talk to black players and they will tell you privately that prejudice remains a problem behind the scenes. Now, on the eve of a contest being held in a country with such endemic bigotry that black fans have been warned not to attend, the Football Association indicates that it sees racism as little more than a minor misdemeanour. It is a body with a well-deserved reputation for incompetence, of course, but this is crass even for them.

In Britain, we pretend the problem has been defeated, sweeping it under the carpet despite all evidence to the contrary.

Witness the problems engulfing the Metropolitan Police nine years after the bungled investigation of Stephen Lawrence's murder, with the revelation of 51 complaints of racism made to the police watchdog in the past two months alone after recordings emerged of an officer assaulting a black man. As Britain clears away the champagne glasses, we should be wary of toasting our tolerance. The saga of the shunned footballer shows how far we still must travel. Far from kicking out racism, our highly-influential national sport has set back the cause with immense insensitivity.