Ellis Cashmore: Beware the banana skin

It is only since black players became celebrities that British football fans have suppressed their racism. Whatever we tell the Spanish, it's still there below the surface
Click to follow

Words of wisdom sometimes have the unlikeliest of sources. Of all people, it was left to Luis Aragones, the coach of Spain's national football team, to reflect that the uproar over the racism that seems endemic in Spanish football is England's way of "covering up flaws in its own society".

Words of wisdom sometimes have the unlikeliest of sources. Of all people, it was left to Luis Aragones, the coach of Spain's national football team, to reflect that the uproar over the racism that seems endemic in Spanish football is England's way of "covering up flaws in its own society".

Not since the Stephen Lawrence report of 1999 have there been so many moralistic headlines, so much condemnatory discourse, yet so little self-critical analysis on the issue of racism. Five years ago, we were wringing our hands, pondering how we could confront the newly discovered adversary of institutional racism.

Now we feel assured enough to pontificate on the racist ills that bedevil other nations. Are we really so faultless that we can censure, denounce and criticise another European country for a transgression that was, until recently, commonplace in our own culture? Only months ago, Ron Atkinson was discharged from his television duties after passing judgement on a black player in language that might have sprung from the lips of a 19th-century slave owner.

How long had he been using the word "nigger" and other racist shibboleths? Imagine the company he keeps: television personnel, managers, players. Did none of them realise that he harboured the kind of thoughts that were reflected in his speech? Or did they just let it pass, perhaps in tacit acknowledgement that this type of language and the grotesque views it suggests abound in the beautiful game?

While witnessing the public outrage last week, I recalled my research from the early 1980s, when I focused on the then emerging phenomenon of black footballers. Players such as Cyrille Regis, Garth Crooks and Viv Anderson occasioned both earnest analysis and incandescent rage.

The analysis centred on why so many African-Caribbean players were breaking through to the highest levels of football. The rage boiled on the terraces as fans reacted to the sight of the once-white game being invaded not just by black players, but by brilliant black players. I speculated - incorrectly, as it turned out - that, by the start of the 1990s, half the England team would be black. The forecast prompted outrage, not just from the fans, but from all quarters.

But it was among the fans that the racism was most obvious. Their game was being, as they saw it, contaminated. I recall vividly a conversation with two West Bromwich Albion fans to whom I pointed out that the world's finest player, Pelé, was black. "He's different," one West Bromwich fan responded. "He's not one of us." But nor on his account were Regis, Brendon Batson or the late Laurie Cunningham. Yet they were playing for an English and, by implication, white club.

Throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s, black players in the Eng-lish leagues had to endure insidious chanting, pelting with bananas and the kind of monkey parodies we witnessed in Madrid. Remember: the English originated this obscene ritual. As well as the game of football itself, England's cultural exports include less noble accomplishments. Racism and hooliganism are among them.

The belated response to the mistreatment of black players came in 1993 when the Commission for Racial Equality joined forces with the Professional Footballers' Association to mount a campaign under the rubric "Let's kick racism out of football".

But the real challenge to racism came from players of African background or descent. First among equals was Ruud Gullit. He, more than any other black player, changed the fans' understanding of black players.

Designer-clad, his hair coiffured into dreadlocks, Gullit spoke knowledgeably and judiciously about football, had an urbane demeanour and teemed with elegance, whether on the football field or in a TV studio. Far from being a contaminant, he was a precious commodity. And he led the way for a new class of black players: high-priced, exorbitantly paid, but often extravagantly talented men who could justifiably claim to be celebrities. After all, they enjoyed the same kind of money, lifestyle and, in most cases, public adulation of rock stars and screen actors.

Where did this leave the homegrown black players who played for the less glamorous clubs in the lower leagues? Not so well off as Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry or Claude Makelele, but better off than Regis et al. The vile dirges diminished, though not entirely, and the physical abuse has disappeared. Nor do directors issue prescriptive reminders that blacks make good fair-weather players, but lack the perseverance to excel in the harsh winter conditions. And managers no longer whisper that blacks lack "bottle".

Where some saw racism disappear, others saw a fragile, conditional concordance: black players who were good enough to be whisked away to celebrity were spared the disapproval dished out to nondescript black players from the lower divisions. Yet the underlying force of racism remains: dormant perhaps, but always liable to surface, as those from the less celebrated leagues will testify.

In any case, there have been several periods over the past 25 years when racism, in football and be- yond, seemed to be a spent force. We thought the far right had sunk into oblivion, that the police had racist behaviour sorted and that discrimination had been cleared out of the workplace. Racism's habit of recrudescing should alert us to the dangers of complacency.

England has had a long time to ponder the question of racism in football, and what to do about it. All this has to be set against a background of changing demographics. For most of its history, football has been a predominantly white game. Over the past 20 years, its complexion has changed. Not only has there been an over-representation of home-grown black players in the English leagues, but the African nations have risen to the kind of heights never imagined in the 1970s. Fans have been forcibly made to accommodate the change. If the likes of Jermaine Jenas, Jermain Defoe and Shaun Wright-Phillips mature as many expect, England's national side may soon have a majority of black representatives. (I've been wrong before, of course!)

The reaction to the Madrid episode is steeped in the kind of arrogance the rest of the world associates with the English. Sanctimoniously, we have responded with indignation, demanding condemnation as well as punitive sanctions. This from a nation that, only five years ago, was tormented by a vision of institutional racism on its cultural landscape. Besides, if English football is so free of racism, where are all the black managers, coaches and administrators?

Few people are going to absolve the Spanish fans, though we might try to understand their reaction in context. Spain is a country in which ethnic rivalries are paramount. People are animated by ethnic affiliations; they see themselves as Basque, Catalan, Galician or part of one of the other many clusters that distinguish themselves by language, cuisine, patterns of worship and other cultural indicators. The casual manner in which coach Aragones issued a racial slur in training some weeks ago suggests that the Spanish are not aware of the opprobrium associated with racist language or the rancour it provokes, let alone the depth of passion it arouses in many other countries.

While the England team's decision to proclaim their feelings by wearing shirts bearing anti-racist slogans in training seemed virtuous at the time, it unwittingly provided Spanish fans with a rallying point in much the same way as Tottenham Hotspur's Jewish directorate presented rival fans with the raw material for anti-Semitic diatribes.

None of this excuses the Spanish for the Madrid offence, though our demands for contrition are likely to go unsatisfied. The Spanish may well retaliate with a command that we peer into our own souls. Perhaps the denunciation of others is a zigzag road to redemption for sins that are uncomfortably like our own.

Ellis Cashmore's book 'Tyson' is published on Friday by Polity. He is Professor of Culture, Media and Sport at Staffordshire University