Will Soccer Ever Be Able to Kick Racism Out?

For soccer fans in the U.K., it's been a week to bury your head in the sand out of utter dismay when it comes to the woeful wave of racism stories roiling the world's most popular game

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Jon Super / AP

Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand, left, is seen without an antiracism shirt alongside teammate Wayne Rooney as they warm up before their English Premier League soccer match at Old Trafford stadium, Manchester, England, on Oct. 20, 2012

For soccer fans in the U.K., it’s been a week to bury your head in the sand out of utter dismay when it comes to the woeful wave of racism stories roiling the world’s most popular game. Where to begin? With the guilty verdict and fine handed out to Chelsea’s John Terry for his remarks to Anton Ferdinand, Serbia’s alleged abuse toward England during their under-21 game last week and the controversy over who did and didn’t wear the Kick It Out T-shirts this past weekend, it’s been difficult to reflect on the actual action that takes place in the world’s most exhilarating league.

And in the eyes of some high-profile players, the powers that be who run the sport have been burying their heads in the sand too. To start with the most recent incident, a debate is raging over the extent of support literally shown (or not) by the players in the English Premier League (EPL). While the vast majority sported the Kick It Out T-shirts in the warm-up to the games this weekend — the Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football campaign was established in 1993 and has since become Kick It Out — the headlines were inevitably made by the soccer players who opted out. Brothers Rio and Anton Ferdinand, who play for Manchester United and Queens Park Rangers respectively, perhaps unsurprisingly didn’t play ball as they’re dismayed, one could surmise, with the Football Association (FA) only handing out a four-match suspension and a $350,000 fine to Terry for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand (it should be noted that Terry was cleared of all criminal charges in July after the Westminster Magistrates’ Court concluded there was insufficient evidence against the Chelsea captain). But to give a fuller indication that this wasn’t just one or two names who didn’t pull on the T-shirt, Ferdinand, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Nedum Onuoha, Sylvain Distin and Victor Anichebe decided against it before Sunday’s match between QPR and Everton, and none of the players participating in Saturday’s fixture between Swansea and Wigan got involved.

(MORE: ‘Footballing Reasons’: The Sordid Backstory to Rio Ferdinand’s Euro 2012 Omission)

Rio Ferdinand’s stand didn’t go down well with his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, who took it personally, noting that it’s “embarrassing for me,” as he’d already gone on record saying that his players would wear the T-shirt. “He’ll be dealt with, don’t worry about that,” Ferguson went on, which unfortunately steered the conversation in a different direction, as it resulted in the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) backing the player’s right to the freedom of expression. The PFA chairman, Clarke Carlisle, was put in the awkward situation of both agreeing with Ferguson’s position and having to protect his player. “Everyone has a right to free speech — just like you can’t coerce anyone into shaking hands, you can’t make somebody wear a T-shirt — although I do personally believe that joining in with the campaign is the best way forward,” Carlisle said. Former Manchester United defender Viv Anderson, who was the first black player to represent the England senior side in 1978, didn’t “agree with Rio,” maintaining that Ferguson “expects his senior boys to set an example. He is the manager. If he says we are all doing it together, it should be the end of the story. But Rio has gone the other way. I don’t see where he is coming from, and I don’t know what it is going to achieve.”

To say it’s a complex situation is an understatement, containing ironies like how a player not wearing the T-shirt can lead to more publicity for the campaign or Ferguson’s severe stance clouding the good work he’s undertaken for Kick It Out (on Monday, Ferguson walked back on his original remarks by saying, “I’ve spoken to Rio. There is no issue. There was a communication problem but it has been resolved”). Speaking of resolution, it remains unclear how Terry will see out his playing days at his beloved Chelsea, which finally took action of its own against its captain. Chelsea chief executive Ron Gourlay said a “very, very heavy fine” had been meted out to the 31-year-old defender, adding that “it was a lapse in judgment and out of character for John, he did fall below the standards we expect.” Chairman Bruce Buck confirmed that Russian owner Roman Abramovich was consulted before “firm disciplinary action” was taken but Gourlay’s remark that “John Terry apologized to everybody and in my mind that means an apology to Anton Ferdinand” might not necessarily be taken that way by Ferdinand. For his part, Terry has been asked by UEFA to wear an antiracism armband during Chelsea’s Champions League match against Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday, and it is unthinkable that he’d refuse.

(MORE: QPR vs. Chelsea in the EPL: John Terry Returns to Loftus Road)

While great strides have been achieved by the likes of the Kick It Out campaign to raise awareness — “the progress we’ve made in the last 20 years has been as a consequence of collective collaboration, rather than individuals working alone,” stated ex-player Paul Elliott, who was recently awarded a CBE for services to equality and diversity in football — isolated incidents are sadly still seen on and off the field. In England, the Terry and Luis Suárez cases from last season (Liverpool’s Suárez was handed an eight-match ban by the FA for racially insulting Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, a further reason Rio Ferdinand wouldn’t have felt inclined to help the cause) dominated many a news cycle, but it’s even worse on foreign fields. Last week’s England under-21 international game in Serbia was overshadowed by the alleged abuse directed toward England’s black players by their Serbian counterparts and supporters. England’s Danny Rose was sent off at the final whistle but clearly indicated that he was racially abused (as England’s players celebrated their victory, a series of objects were thrown on the field). It’s not the first time that scenes such as these have taken place involving the Serbs. In 2007, the Serbian Football Federation was fined a paltry $26,000 at the European Under-21 Championships in the Netherlands after their fans racially abused England’s Onuoha.

Onuoha’s club manager soon after that incident and now is Mark Hughes, as the former Manchester City pair have been reunited at QPR. And Hughes remains convinced that, depressingly, soccer may never be fully rid of racism as “there’ll always be some idiot who feels that it’s something they want to do.” He was speaking after the other EPL match on Sunday backed his point: the local derby between Sunderland and Newcastle resulted in a 1-1 tie on the pitch but the key statistic was that in addition to the 15 arrests related to the game, a Northumbria police spokesman confirmed that “there was one report of racist language having been used by a supporter in one area of the stadium — inquiries into this report are ongoing.” It’s clear that the battle to educate minds and overcome racism, wherever it takes place, is also ongoing.

MORE: Racism and Euro 2012: Football’s Ongoing Struggle