Only a Game? - Time to show racism the red card – once and for all

John Barnes kicks away a banana thrown at him during the Merseyside derby in the late 1980s.
John Barnes kicks away a banana thrown at him during the Merseyside derby in the late 1980s.
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IT was a photo that shamed football fans back in the late 1980s.

Liverpool star John Barnes was pictured kicking away a banana thrown by a racist section of the crowd during the Merseyside derby.

Luis Suarez, of Liverpool, and Manchester United's Patrice Evra, the protagonists in the most high profile race row to have dominated English football in recent times.

Luis Suarez, of Liverpool, and Manchester United's Patrice Evra, the protagonists in the most high profile race row to have dominated English football in recent times.

But now - more than 20 years since that infamous incident at Everton’s Goodison Park - despite efforts to fight racism, it has still not been eradicated from football or society as a whole.

In recent weeks we have seen:

* Liverpool striker Luis Suarez banned for eight matches by the FA after being found guilty of racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.

* England captain John Terry facing a criminal charge of using racist language towards QPR’s Anton Ferdinand.

* Oldham defender Tom Adeyemi claiming he was called a “black b******” by a fan during a recent FA Cup game at Liverpool.

Football is the biggest sport in the world and belongs to us all. It should be the right of every person to play, watch and discuss freely, without fear. We want to see the ‘beautiful game’ played without discrimination.

Unfortunately, at all levels of the game, from amateur to international, there are incidents of racism and discrimination. Be it from fans, players, clubs or other football bodies, such behaviour, on and off the field, is unacceptable and unwanted by the majority of fans and players.

Football’s appeal crosses all divides – religious, cultural, national and continental – and knows no bounds. Its power to unite is a unique and abiding strength.

But this power to unite is countered by a power to divide. Football can be a focal point for racism and xenophobia - not just in England but all over the world.

That is why the game’s ruling bodies – and by extension clubs and players as its ambassadors - have a responsibility to protect and promote football’s unique position as the game that unites the world. This means taking steps to free it from intolerance and prejudice.

Racism is not a problem of football’s making, but, because of the game’s popularity, football has a disproportionate effect on it compared to other sports and walks of life.

Football commands the hearts and minds of millions of people. It is a powerful vehicle to take a message of tolerance and respect to society as a whole.

It was only in the 1990s that the football authorities and clubs in England accepted that racism was a serious problem that had to be addressed for the good of the game.

In the 1970s and 1980s, racism was rife at certain English football grounds. Racist chanting and abuse was common; bananas were thrown from stands and terraces at black players; and football clubs were targeted by far right groups for the dissemination of racist literature. The national team, in particular, became associated with a far right following. Home games at Wembley were marred by abuse of black English players.

At that time, the problem of racism was overtaken by a more general problem with anti-social behaviour and violence at football matches. Football authorities and clubs were rightly preoccupied with making grounds safe again, but it is possible that the problem of racism was, as a result, sidelined.

Since then, English football has come a long way in a short time. Supporters at different clubs successfully challenged unacceptable behaviour and brought the issue of racism up the agenda. English football has responded by showing a new willingness to tackle racism and put its house in order.

However, recent events - chief among them the controversy stirred on Saturday last when Liverpool striker Luis Suarez refused to shake hands with Manchester United’s Patrice Evra before their game at Old Trafford - have catapulted the issue back to the top of the agenda.

Indeed, British Prime Minister David Cameron has signalled the involvement of his government in the racism row by calling a summit to discuss the issue. According to several reports in the British press, Cameron and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt are to hold a “round table discussion” at Downing Street with football officials and players’ representatives later this month.

Getting back to the Suarez-Evra debacle, the Uruguayan later apologised to the Frenchman for refusing to shake hands but the Liverpool forward was still subjected to a strong dressing down from his club as Liverpool finally tried to bring an end to the row.

Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre had led the criticism of Suarez, followed by Kenny Dalglish who apologised for his own actions during a bizarre post- match interview in which he had deflected criticism of his striker. There has been speculation that the apologies came after an intervention was made by the owners of Liverpool FC, the US-based Fenway Sports, which also owns the Boston Red Sox baseball team, and shirt sponsors Standard Chartered Bank, whch has paid £95.5 million as part of a three year deal.

Suarez’s latest actions culminate an ongoing saga which has shed light on the issue of racial abuse between players and had led to leading black players expressing their private dissatisfaction at the way in which issues of racism are dealt with.

Amid the profusion of claim and counter-claim which surround recent events, one thing is for certain - the evil of racism has blighted football for too long. It is time to eliminate this poison from the game once and for all.