The ugly side of the beautiful game

John Barnes, former Liverpool and England star, faced many a hurdle related-PICS:GETTY IMAGES

That racist prejudice existed in English professional football for a great many years is beyond dispute, though never did it go so shockingly far as the two major American baseball leagues which, almost incredibly, barred black players from their clubs entirely, till 1946. Things are a lot better now but more needs to be done. By Brian Glanville.

There seems some possibility that the so called Rooney Rule, adopted by all the major gridiron football teams in the United States, may have a somewhat faint echo in the Football League here. In the USA, the rule decrees that any club planning to appoint a new coach, alias manager, must interview at least one black candidate. If you detect a strong whiff of hypocrisy about such a rule, then I am very much with you. The point surely being that it doesn’t oblige any club actually to appoint a black candidate; nor has any club yet done so. It is so far a mere empty gesture. And if it be true that the Football League want to apply a watered down version of something which is in itself watered down to a degree, you will doubt whether simply obliging its clubs to interview a candidate for a subsidiary coaching assistant post is mere window dressing.

That racist prejudice existed in English professional football for a great many years is beyond dispute, though never did it go so shockingly far as the two major American baseball leagues which, almost incredibly, barred black players from their clubs entirely, till 1946.

Even then it was only because Lieutenant Jackie Robinson, a decorated war hero and a talented baseball player, returned from the war and was admitted by the Boston club. Since then, of course black players have poured into American baseball, with players like Willy Mays becoming refulgent stars.

In England, the odd black player was to be found in League football even before the Great War. One played briefly for Tottenham Hotspur and died a hero in battle. But between the two years only a single black player, the outside-left G. A. Parris, was capped by a British international team and that, though he was known as a talented outside left with Bradford, was for just one appearance in 1931/2.

Nowadays when outstanding black players are super abundant in the Premier League it seems almost illusory to think of previous prejudice which lasted well into the 1960s. The absurd delusion was that black players were cowards that in the vernacular, you would never see them on a cold night at Middlesbrough. Though oddly enough, it was Middlesbrough themselves who gave a very early post war chance to a gifted outside right from Jamaica called Lindy Delapenha, a popular figure on Teesside.

I was, I think, the first senior football columnist to assault the myth that black players were cowards, essentially unreliable. I wrote a short story on the theme entitled ‘Black Magic’, concerning a talented young black player spurned by a bigoted cob coach. In the event, he is transferred to another club, returns to his original one and before the bigoted coach’s eyes excels as a match winner. The story originally appeared in a London evening newspaper, but to my delight, it was republished in ‘The Voice’, the leading West Indian magazine in London. I even had a death threat from some putrescent little neo-Fascist group.

While at Chelsea, their first black player, an outside right called Paul Canoville, was viciously and cruelly abused by a bunch of neo-Nazi fans, and driven out of the club. How strange and remote that seems, when one thinks of the enormous goal-scoring success and colossal popularity at Stamford Bridge of the bulky Didier Drogba, the Ivory Coast centre forward.

Actually, when the autocratic Ken Bates was Chairman of Chelsea, he once told me he was reluctant to sign African players because they were so frequently being called up by their countries to take part in World Cup or African competitive games.

Coloured players were looked down upon in Brazil until Pele's miracles in the 1958 Sweden World Cup.-

It is interesting to reflect on the fate of the black footballer in Brazil. Again, after the explosion of the 17-year-old Pele in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, with a hat-trick in the semifinal and two sensational goals in the final itself, it can easily be forgotten that the black player at first had a very hard job of winning a place in Brazilian club, let alone international football. Indeed there are South American commentators who believe that not till the triumphs of Pele himself was the black player truly established in Brazilian football.

The case of Leonidas somewhat questions this; he was a gloriously agile, even gymnastic centre forward, renowned for his bicycle-kick and one of the outstanding figures of the 1938 World Cup in France. A trophy the Brazilians might well have won had they not in an astonishing suicidal moment of sheer hubris, only omitted him from the semifinal against Italy in Marseille. Having, in their arrogance, already booked every seat on the one aeroplane, which would take one or other team to the final in Paris. In the event, Brazil lost and Italy went to Paris, by train, to win the final.

Astonishingly, slavery was abolished in Brazil only in 1888 — 23 years after Abraham Lincoln had terminated it in the United States. Major Rio and Sao Paolo clubs long refused to engage any black player.

The one major exception that proved the rule was a supremely effective attacker called Arthur Friedenreich, the son of a German father and a black mother; a green eyes mulatto who, poor fellow, would go to great pains to straighten his hair with a side parting before taking the field. A kind of camouflage! He was a prolific legend, who went on scoring freely well into his 40s. But once when chosen for a team of blacks against whites he bitterly complained, “They have blackened me.”

As for England, it is shameful to think that John Barnes, a hero of the 1986 World Cup, at his best a splendidly fast and elusive left winger, had bananas thrown at him when he played in Liverpool. And when he scored a remarkable solo goal against Brazil at the Maracana, a travelling group of contemptible neo-Fascists announced that England had won only 1-0 rather than 2-0 since one of their goals was scored by a black player.

The problem with African sub-Saharan football, alas and of course, is that the glorious playing talent is constantly betrayed by corrupt administrators. George Weah, Liberia’s greatest player, once a Milan star, paid out of his own pocket for the team to fly to an away match; all funds had been stolen by the officials.