Football: Infectious rottenness of racism

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The Independent Online
FOR reasons that should require no exposition, a great deal of embarrassment was felt in Israel recently when a black footballer, the Cameroon international Cyrille Makanaky of Maccabi Tel Aviv, had to endure a torrent of racist taunts throughout a match against Maccabi Haifa.

In his distress, a man sitting alongside me in a crowd of 43,000 at the Ramat Gan stadium apologised profusely. 'That we should hear such a thing in my country of all places is disgraceful,' he said.

Much to their credit, members of Israel's parliament immediately contacted their football association expressing not only deep concern but the view that it would be completely in order if a heavy fine was imposed on clubs whose supporters are guilty of racial discrimination.

A few days later I spoke about this with the former general secretary of the Israeli FA, Joe Dagan, who is as much respected in retirement as he was in office. 'This is a new problem for football in Israel and I'm not entirely sure what we can do to prevent it spreading,' he said, 'but spread it will unless we act quickly.'

Leaflets imploring supporters to refrain from racist behaviour were distributed before league games last weekend and Makanaky was solemnly presented with a sheaf of flowers on the pitch before turning out for Tel Aviv at Natanya.

Significantly, in some quarters this sensitive issue is thought to have arisen from the amount of football on satellite television in Israel. With access to more than 30 channels, subscribers receive the game from all over Europe. 'What you heard from those idiots at the Ramat Gan is what they have heard from football supporters in other countries,' said Joe Mirmovitch, who turned out many times in Israel's colours and was later their national coach.

However, listening to the taunts that were directed at Makanaky I was conscious of a massive irony. They are wrong, of course, those who comfortably suppose that racism is gradually disappearing from football, anymore than I am ever likely to forget the rotten theory advanced by a distinguished correspondent during the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany.

Upon hearing that I had struck a bet with the then Derby County manager and former Tottenham hero, Dave Mackay, taking what appeared to be generous odds against Brazil, he shook his head.

'No chance,' he said. 'Why?' I asked, prepared to concede that Brazil without Pele, Gerson and Tostao were not the brilliant force they had been in Mexico four years earlier.

'Too many black players,' he replied. Elaboration was called for. 'Obvious, old boy,' he added. 'It's common knowledge that they haven't got much beneath the rib cage.' So what about Pele and any number of marvellous black boxers? 'Exceptions to every rule,' he concluded, smugly.

Some years ago, when Viv Anderson became the first black player to represent England, I went in search of the former Leeds winger, Albert Johanneson, who was the first black player to appear in an FA Cup final.

An extremely skilful footballer with unsettling pace, Johanneson found the burden of expectation so intimidating that Leeds, and this was before the introduction of substitutes, might as well have taken the field at Wembley with 10 men. After that, he quickly disappeared. 'I don't think we ever really understood him,' the Leeds manager, Don Revie, said. 'Albert had tremendous natural ability, but growing up in Cape Town had left him cowed and short of confidence. But for that he might have been a sensation.'

The search for Johanneson proved fruitless. A lost cause. A lost soul.

Memory paints the horrid picture of black players, including John Barnes, being abused by a squalid group of England supporters in 1984 on a flight from Montevideo to Santiago.

The picture changes. This year, Paul Ince became the first black player to captain England. But does it? What Makanaky heard could have been a sorry truth about mankind.