NOT GETTING SHIRTY: Ferdinand (left) with team mate Wayne Rooney last Saturday
OPINION IS divided over the decision of some footballers not to wear anti-racism campaign Kick It Out’s T-shirts.
Rio Ferdinand, Jason Roberts, amongst others, opted out last Saturday.
Even more media coverage was given to the players’ actions when Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson promised to take stringent action against Ferdinand for his refusal to wear a T-shirt.
But just what is the priority here? Kicking racism out of football? Or satisfying Sir Alex and others who feel that simply wearing a piece of clothing will eradicate a problem that is rearing its ugly head almost on a weekly basis?
The players concerned are of the opinion that not enough is being done. Simple.
In the past year alone, Luis Suarez, John Terry and the Serbian FA have found themselves in the dock. Two of the three have been found guilty while the other will be deemed so in the fullness of time.
Apart from Suarez – who was banned for eight matches and fined £40,000 – punishments handed to guilty individuals and associations have been farcical, giving rise to the view that those in power are dragging their feet.
What example and message does that send out to black players, and more importantly, the next generation who play or watch the game? The answer is, not a good one.
Recently, I spent a couple of hours with a group of under-12s and asked them for their views on the subject of racism in football.
They were united in their view that there was no place for incidences such as Suarez-Evra, Terry-Anton Ferdinand and events in Serbia where England’s Under-21 side quite literally came under attack.
The next generation is correct in their thinking, obviously.
However, unless the sport’s decision-makers properly take the issue in hand, those youngsters could lose their anti-racist focus and become the next perpetrators or victims.
Both Suarez and Terry have been defended by their supporters as not being racists. But surely, their behaviour leaves the door ajar on that point.
The ugly scenes in Serbia last week surprised no one. As a country, they have previous form. Those who allow them to play international football are just as culpable as that section of the country’s players and fans who behaved with the same decorum as Saturday night bar brawlers.
If Serbia were banned from competition, which would affect revenue and status, they may just clean up their act, and quickly.
To that end, the Football Association (FA) should have refused to send a team to the Eastern Bloc. But no, they decided, in football parlance, that the players ‘should keep their heads down, stay professional and get on with the game’.
That has been the mantra for decades now and it is patently not working. Hence some players have declined to wear KIO T-shirts.
To my mind the T-shirts, to get the message home, should be worn EVERY week and not just every October.
While doing research for my 2006 book Black Lions, I sat down with pioneers like John Barnes, Cyrille Regis, John Fashanu and Luther Blissett and others to find out what life was like as a footballer in the 70s and 80s.
They told of racism unabated. Bullets were sent in the post and excrement pushed through letterboxes.
Vile hatred was the order of the day, especially in the north of England.
And this quartet, by the way, was on the receiving end of this abuse while representing… England!
While excrement is no longer a weapon of choice, Twitter and Facebook are. There can be nothing worse than having to deal with a faceless racist.
But Sir Alex’s threat to “deal” with Ferdinand compounds the problem. If the most influential name in the sport is not prepared to see reason, who is?
Therein lays the problem: a lack of empathy from those that should know better. Sir Alex could have thought and said: “The Ferdinands as a family have been through a lot in the past year. I’ll leave it to the players to decide whether they wear T-shirts or not.”
Instead, he decided to flex his muscles. I fear he may have miscalculated the mood as Ferdinand was joined by dozens of others by abstaining throughout the leagues.
In his Friday press conference, Sir Alex dubbed Roberts a sheep “by wandering off”. Does the Manchester United boss now see himself as a shepherd since he has sheep of his own? Thankfully, the issue has been resolved between manager and player.
On TV too, ignorance is bliss. Watch any of the plethora of football magazine shows and there will not be a black man in sight.
The race issue will be played out in the media, and not very well, by a galaxy of stars who have never experienced the subject first-hand. How would they know?
One of the most celebrated pundits, Alan Hansen, described a black player as “coloured” not too long ago – a sign, surely that confirms how out of touch the ‘experts’ are.
Hansen, a Liverpool legend, can comment on winning European Cups, league titles and gaining caps for Scotland, but he has no idea whatsoever what it feels like to be called a n****r. And he never will.
The failure of players to wear a Kick It Out T-shirt is merely a smokescreen for the burning issue.
I know members of the Kick It Out team well and am happy to call them genuine friends. The players’ decisions not to support their cause will be painful for those who work so tirelessly to make football a better place.
Ironically, the fixture computer – which has a warped sense of humour – has decided that Ferdinand’s Manchester United visit Chelsea this Sunday.
Make no mistake, the former England man will be the subject of abusive chants. But should he play, and be affected by the nutters to the point where he makes a crucial on-field error, will Sir Alex speak up for his player?
The issue of wearing or not wearing a KIO T-shirt should not be the priority. Top of the agenda should be the punishments meted out to those that wish to abuse black players at their place of work.
Last Friday a Leeds United fan attacked Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Chris Kirkland. He was rightly jailed for four months on the following Monday. It would suggest that swift action can be taken by those in power. It took a year for the Terry-Ferdinand incident to be concluded.
If Sir Alex had supported his player on this issue, the subject of racism in football may have been picked up with vigour by the lacklustre authorities and media.
We’ve seen and heard Fergie blow up when he wants extra, but on this particular issue he’s done a swerve.
Like Roberts and Rio Ferdinand, Sir Alex has done sterling work in regards to racism in football. Where the two players – and others last weekend – have found themselves now is as a direct result of their total disgust at the lack of punitive action.
Not a week seems to go by without a black player being racially targeted. To add insult to injury, no one seems to be outraged enough, if the so-called punishments to date are to be considered.
What happens next is up to the players. There has been talk of strikes. It is not my way forward but in most other industries – miners, teachers, tube workers – they vote with their feet over pay and conditions.
Millionaire footballers certainly can’t strike over pay, but conditions are proving increasingly difficult.
However, for those on the breadline in Hackney, Tottenham, Brixton, Harlesden, Moss Side, Toxteth and Handsworth fighting their own daily battles there must be massive dismay.
As they hunt for jobs, income and pride, if those that earn £50,000 per week can’t garner any respect, what hope is there for everybody else?
The Terry court verdict of not guilty, essentially meant that a black man could be verbally abused by somebody who testifies that he was merely repeating what he thought was being said to him. Utter tosh.
That verdict, the events in Serbia, the T-shirt furore and Sir Alex’s stance are ingredients that do not make a palatable cocktail and will not take the so-called beautiful game – or society – forward.
Footballers generally enjoy ‘untouchable’ status during their careers, and, unlike the rest of us, can avoid the routine dross of everyday life.
Black players, who have done so much over the years to illuminate the game, deserve better. It is not a case of what they earn but for what they yearn.
The colour of their skin won’t change. Therefore, football must. And soon.
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