The Poison of Racism

Newly appointed FIFA anti-racism chief Jeffrey Webb.-AP

If Jeffrey Webb, FIFA’s anti-racism head, really means to take his job seriously, rather than as a vehicle for his own self promotion, he needs to focus on Russia, Italy and almost any country you could mention in the Balkans. By Brian Glanville.

Hallelujah! FIFA have just appointed a new head of anti-racism. His name is Jeffrey Webb — no I had never heard of him either — and his first adventurous mission is to be in England where he will try to speak not only to John Terry, guilty of insulting Antony Ferdinand in a match between Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers, but Ferdinand too, while he also intends to go to Liverpool to speak with Luis Suarez, given a long suspension for calling the French international left back of Manchester United, Patrice Evra.

Who knows what he hopes to gain from such encounters other than personal publicity and self indulgence. For however displeasing the Terry and Suarez cases were, they amount, thank goodness, to comparatively rare events in English football; once plagued by endemic racism not only from the all too often bigoted terraces but within the game itself. Wherein you would hear such ludicrous beliefs as that you’d never see a black player in a cold winter’s night at Middlesbrough. The idea that black players might be cowards even at a time when the 5 foot 8inch Pele was showing courage as great as his precocity seemed farcical to me at the time and still more farcical, now, when so many black players have made a great impression in English soccer.

But that was in the days when banana were thrown on the pitch when John Barnes was playing for Liverpool, or when Laurie Cunningham, whose sadly short, but effervescent, life has just been commemorated by an English TV documentary, were targets for such bigotry not only away but at home.

Yet if Jeffrey Webb really means to take his job seriously, rather than as a vehicle for his own self promotion, why doesn’t he focus rather on Russia, Italy and almost any country you could mention in the Balkans. Why does he not remind himself of one of the most recent and abysmal examples of racial abuse in the little north Italian town of Busto Arsizio where once the Pro Patria club, in the latter 1940s, punched bravely above its weight in the Campionato, but now reduced in the depts. of the Italian League.

Recently Milan went there to play a friendly, but such was the level of abuse directed at the Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng that he walked off the field in disgust followed by the rest of the team.

While that controversial, explosive, but gifted, attacker Mario Balotelli, when he played for Inter, was viciously assailed by the chant of Juventus supporters, “If we jump up and down, Balotelli will die”. Now that he is just back in Milan to play for AC Milan themselves, he has been abused by supporters of the former club Inter during the recent Milanese derby and it even appears that the old, sick trick of throwing bananas on the field has been resurrected. Yet this is meant to be a highly civilised country.

So is Spain where some years ago in an international match played in Madrid, England’s black players were subjected to racial taunts by the so called Ultras, gathered odiously at one end of the giant Bernabeu stadium. The same Ultras who in the past got rid of that fine South American coach Pacho Maturana, who assured me when I met him soon after at Leyton Orient of all places, that the contract had been signed and sealed only for Real gutlessly to ignore it.

In Russia racism is endemic and the utter cynicism and duplicity of FIFA could not be more clearly shown than by events at their leading Championship club. Peter Odemwingie, the talented Nigerian attacker who now seems to have settled his differences with West Bromwhich Albion, after a bizarre episode in which he drove down to London thinking erroneously that he would sign for Queens Park Rangers, was driven out of Lokomotiv Moscow by supporters who when he’d left for Albion shamelessly displayed a banner, complete with the depiction of a banana, saying thanks to Albion for taking him away.

When that much experienced and travelled Dutch coach, Dick Advocaat, was managing Zenit St Petersburg, he says that he never dared to sign a black player for fear of the hostility it would arouse among the club’s supporters. Yet Russia as we know will stage the 2018 World Cup. Do you think Mr. Webb, after his cosy chats with John Terry and company, will extend his travels to Russia?

Things have improved in Scotland, as well as England. My old friend Paul Elliott, who alas has just had to give up his various anti-racist offices after a bizarre attack on another black ex Charlton centre half Richard Rufus, including the outlawed word nigger, knows all about such prejudice. When leaving Pisa to join Celtic in Glasgow, he was so ferociously insulted during a home game against Hearts that the Hearts skipper went over to his fans and asked them to stop. That Elliott should so assail another black player is beyond comprehension to those of us who know and admire him. Racism! Surely not.