Still playing the game by the old rules

3rd February 1995 at 00:00
Forget architectural and legislative facelifts: racism continues to haunt football. Reva Klein reports.

If football's reputation has taken a kicking from Eric Cantona, it is against a background in which the game has been taking steady strides to respectability. That the volcanic Frenchman could reach the crowd so easily is itself an ironic indication of how far the game has come from the bleak days of the Eighties when fans were caged in decaying, dangerous grounds.

All-seater stadiums, executive boxes and video screens are the face of modern football, with fans paying ticket prices comparable to a night at the theatre. Top players with price tags higher than great works of art are fashion icons, as likely to be seen making celebrity appearances on chic television shows as swapping cliches on Match of the Day.

But if football has polished up its tarnished reputation, pushing itself upmarket to attract a wider, family audience, the Cantona incident, sparked by the goading of an overseas player, raises the ghost of one of its oldest vices - racism.

While nearly a quarter of football league and premier league players are black, there are no black team managers among the 92 professional clubs and less than 1 per cent of fans attending games are black. It's not that black and Asian people don't like the game, or that megastars like John Barnes, John Fashanu, Ian Wright and Andy Cole don't inspire passion, pride and loyalty in the hearts of black fans. It's that football is still, despite architectural and legislative facelifts, a bastion of white, mainly working-class, men, from top management through to administration, players and supporters. And some of those men don't like black people.

Despite there having been small numbers of black players in this country since the 1880s, it wasn't until the Seventies that more significant numbers began to appear in league clubs. These men endured years of humiliation, regularly being showered with bananas and spit to the accompaniment of grotesque monkey noises and, to add insult to injury, having this behaviour generally ignored by the commentators.

Paul Elliott, who started playing professionally for Charlton Athletic in 1980 at 16 and later became the first black player for Celtic, looks back with little fondness. "Sportsmen like ourselves have to suffer to change attitudes. We've had to bear the brunt of it because we were the firstIand you'd think that with all the years that have passed things would have changed. But in many ways, they haven't."

But if today's black football stars such as Ian Wright and Paul Ince have had play in the shadow of prejudice, what is being done to change things now? Elliott and other high-profile figures like John Barnes and John Fashanu have put their weight behind an initiative launched by the Commission for Racial Equality called "Kick Racism Out of Football". Backed by the Football Association, the Professional Footballers Association, the FA Premier League and the Endsleigh League, it asks clubs to make a public commitment to anti-racism, with announcements and notices, which set out a tough line on racist chanting, graffiti and abuse between players.

The 1991 Football (Offences) Act specifically makes the "chanting of a racialist nature" an arrestable offence, but in practice its application has been patchy. Even with close-circuit television, it is difficult to identify individuals in a crowd of 20,000 or more - in its first two years of operation only 26 people were convicted.

More effective, perhaps, have been the clear threats to supporters that if they are found to be engaged in racist behaviour (identification can come from other spectators), their season tickets will be revoked and they will be banned from the stadium.

York City is the only English football league team to refuse to support the CRE's anti-racism campaign. Chairman Douglas Craig's rationale is that "nothing would actually have changed and such problems as exist would continue to exist" if the club had joined the campaign. This position has infuriated some York supporters.

Even so, the man has a point. It takes more than putting your name on paper to change things - or putting up posters or footballers holding up banners saying "We Say No to Racism". It's up to the clubs to come up with effective ideas that will get through to supporters, particularly young ones, in terms that mean something to them.

Probably the most beautifully conceived and effectively produced project has come from a club otherwise very much on the skids, second division Leyton Orient. While the club has recently been on the market for a fiver, the community unit is a powerhouse of first-class outreach youth and community work that pre-dates the CRE's campaign by many years.

But it's their latest initiative, a play, that is really getting attention. Kicking Out, presented by Arc Theatre Ensemble and written by Clifford Oliver, is about the invisible, inaudible racism in football that effects young people's lives. Focusing on a group of black, white and Asian friends, boys and girls, who come together to play football for a five-a-side competition, we enter the labyrinthine world of racial assumptions and stereotypes.

The Asian lad is assumed by the trainer, a guy with a far-Right past, to be too hide-bound in his culture, his diet, his family and a fear of bad weather to be able to play football. Similarly, the trainer makes assumptions about the black boy as being undisciplined and the girls as being too weedy and thick. In among all this are the preconceptions that the young people have about each other and the way they act them out.

The denouement pulls no punches, but the strength of the play is its power to be humourous, theatrically imaginative and very, very honest in its language for its London school audiences.

Another initiative comes from Millwall, some of whose supporters have been accused of racism in the past. The south-London club is full of contradictions. Nick Hornby, author of the critically-acclaimed book about football, Fever Pitch, described it as "a terrible placeIwith a long tradition of British National Party and National Front activity and skinheads among its fans". But black players from other clubs and, among others, Brendan Batson, once of West Bromwich Albion, now at the Professional Footballers' Association, talk with respect about its anti-racist programmes.

Ron Bell, black and dreadlocked, is one of three community workers at the club, going with his colleagues into 80 local primaries in Lewisham and Southwark to play football in winter, tennis in the summer. Racist epithets, which come out of children about twice every session, according to Bell, are dealt with on the spot.

The work with secondary schools is more direct, mixing careers' sessions with players talking about their experiences of racism, leading to discussions among the pupils. And the club's junior Lions and Lionesses leagues bring black children to Millwall.

Reg Burr, chairman of Millwall, feels aggrieved by the bad press his club gets. "We have an image problem that is substantially illusory. We have less racism than a lot of other clubs, even at our worst. There's no question that you can hear racial chanting at football matches. But it's nothing like as bad as 20 years ago."

Even so, Burr's explanation of the paucity of black and Asian Millwall supporters in such a multi-racial area reflects some hoary old chestnuts. "I think West Indians are better at participating at games than supporting them. They prefer to be actively involved rather than sitting as spectators. It is most disappointing, the absence of Asian players and spectators. But Asians tend not to integrate. They keep themselves to themselves. The older generation wants to keep the younger generation in the fold."

But the truth is that young African-Caribbeans and Asians who live in the environs of inner-city London, Birmingham, Leicester and Leeds are as football mad as their white counterparts, swapping videos of games with friends, festooning their bedroom walls with all those tasteful posters of their favourite teams.

It is true that most don't go to games, not because they don't want to, but because of the alienation that they feel and the abuse, prejudice and stereotyping that they fear.

The same reasons, in fact, for the almost complete absence of Asian players in professional football. Asians play a lot of football, particularly Bengali boys, who play more than any other single group in the country, according to a Manchester University report.

But because they play in Asian leagues that the professional clubs' scouts don't venture out to see, they don't get invited into the big clubs' junior leagues, let alone beyond. To overcome this barrier, the Sports Council, Leicester University and the CRE have collaborated on a research project, called "Asians Can't Play Football", named after the American basketball film White Men Can't Jump, which aims to encourage professional clubs to recruit from the massive number of very able and willing Asians who, notwithstanding racial stereotypes, would prefer not to stay home minding the family store.

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