It isn’t such a long time since England supporters were the racists that every other footballing nation dreaded having to host.
A co-ordinated effort was made to shut down the troublemakers, using video evidence to identify them and prevent them from travelling abroad.
Now it seems clear that racism is a scourge that overshadows the sport internationally in any case. I remember a recent international tournament in which Russian fans were expected to start racist violence; last night (October 14) England team members suffered racist abuse from Bulgarians.
UEFA has a three-point plan to deal with racism in football matches – but authorities acted on only the first two parts of it.
After Tyrone Mings was subjected to racist chanting, stadium authorities used the public address system to announce that the referee would consider abandoning the match due to racist behaviour.
But it continued, and in the 41st minute, England players were asked if they wished to enact the second part of the protocol and go back to their dressing room. They chose to play on, at least until half-time.
It was when more racism flared up during the second half that the fight against it was let down. According to UEFA’s protocol, the match should have been abandoned.
But England played on, winning a 0-6 victory. The argument is that the players let their football do the talking, took the victory and the three points that went with it, and left with their heads held high.
What does this actually say, though? That we’ll tolerate racism if we’re winning?
John Barnes seems to think so. In an Independent column, the former footballer who himself suffered an enormous amount of racist abuse reminds us that two matches have been abandoned in accordance with the UEFA protocol so far – and on both those occasions, the teams suffering the abuse were losing.
The implication is clear – that the abuse was used as an excuse to get out of a loss.
England, on the other hand, was in a position to make a genuinely positive statement – and didn’t.
“When we were 4-0 up, and there was continued racism towards England’s players, albeit less than the first half, we should have seen the inevitable result of our zero tolerance stance on racism, and the third step of that protocol SHOULD have been enforced,” wrote Mr Barnes.
He stated that the team chose to “leave the stunning moment that could redefine football’s relationship with racism for another team, another time.”
And he wrote: “When a team does that, then it truly would be a real statement of support for the fight against racism in football.”
And also against the rise against racism all around.
I have a friend from Bulgaria. I cannot imagine any situation in which he would exhibit the kind of behaviour we saw from his countrymen (and women?) at the match.
But racism is on the rise, especially in eastern Europe – due to a combination of events that have propelled populist, far-right organisations to prominence. Here in the UK, austerity* that was brought in on the back of the financial crisis needed a scapegoat, and migrant workers in the UK were chosen for that role. It is one of the reasons people voted to pull the UK out of the European Union.
There was no reason to impose austerity on anybody, remember. It was a political decision by the Conservatives, in order to shrink state spending and deprive poorer people of the services their taxes have funded. The rise in racism this triggered was collateral damage that the Tories were happy to allow – because it diverted blame away from them.
A gesture against racism in a hugely popular sport like football might go a long distance to counter this movement toward hate. England has missed a huge opportunity – winning the match but losing the moral high ground.
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