Official ‘anti-racism’ is ruining the beautiful game
Ignore the Roy Hodgson-bashers – it would be barmy to select footballers according to their
PC-ness rather than their prowess.
Ostensibly, it doesn’t look like much of a story, even in footballing terms. During England’s Euro 2012 warm-up game against Belgium at the weekend, England defender Gary Cahill suffered a broken jaw. This, unsurprisingly, ruled him out of the Euro 2012 tournament. In response, the England manager Roy Hodgson replaced Cahill with a player from the official stand-by list, young Liverpool defender Martin Kelly. (After all, what else are stand-by lists for?) And that, you would think, would be that.
But we are talking about football in the twenty-first century here. It is not simply a beautiful game; it is also an enlightening game, a means to educate those who watch and enjoy it. In short, football has become an opportunity for those who know best to address those who know least: the fans, the supporters. And this is where, according to the army of campaigners, journos and ex-players who make up his critics, Hodgson has made a mistake. By selecting certain players and omitting others, he has sent out the Wrong Message.
Apparently, Hodgson has not made best use of his power for good. More specifically, he selected a squad containing John Terry, a man currently awaiting trial for ‘a racially aggravated public-order offence’ following comments made to Queens Park Rangers player Anton Ferdinand during a match last autumn. And to add public-order insult to racially aggravated injury, Hodgson omitted Anton’s brother, long-time international and one-time captain Rio Ferdinand, from the squad – this despite the injury to Cahill. In the eyes of his detractors, Hodgson has effectively selected a racist and ditched a proxy victim – all to avoid conflict in the England camp. If football is meant to set an example to the ill-educated hordes that watch it, this, Hodgson’s critics contend, was not meant to be it.
Worse still for those adamant that sport has an important political and moral role to fulfil, Hodgson has sought out the last refuge of the soccer scoundrel: he has claimed he made his decision based on ‘football grounds’. This has caused apoplexy among football’s missionaries. Right on cue, part FA-funded anti-racist campaign group Kick It Out has let it be known (in other words, told journalists) that it is not a happy lobby. According to one newspaper, Kick It Out is considering putting together a ‘robust response’ to the handling of the Rio Ferdinand affair. Angry at Hodgson’s ‘football grounds’ justification for the continued omission of Ferdinand, it will apparently soon make public its belief that Ferdinand has been ‘a victim of internal politics’.
Others are less backward about coming forward. A ‘source close to Ferdinand’ told the Guardian that the player felt Hodgson’s decision was ‘disgraceful and morally very suspect’. Current Reading striker and future broadcaster Jason Roberts reckoned that ‘to tell us that Rio has not made it into the squad that is travelling to Euro 2012 for footballing reasons is really insulting people’s intelligence’. Likewise, ex-England international Paul Ince said: ‘We know the reason he has not selected Rio, so then to come out and say it is football reasons is trying to pull the wool over our eyes, I think.’
All of which is pretty insulting to Roy Hodgson. No matter what he says the reason is, everyone else seems to know better. Footballing grounds, pah! This is really about protecting the image of the England national team, a refusal to face up to the racism in its midst.
And yet, here’s a thought. Perhaps Hodgson, as a hugely experienced coach, does have footballing grounds for continuing to omit 33-year-old Ferdinand. The first is that Ferdinand was not on the stand-by list. If Hodgson, faced by an injury to a senior player, had picked a player who was not on the officially designated stand-by list, such as Ferdinand, then that makes a mockery of having the list in the first place. Why should a player bother keeping himself fit and prepared if the manager is just going to ignore him?
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And then there’s Ferdinand himself. He was a very good player, hence his 81 caps. He was also a very quick player, an attribute upon which his success in part depended. But he is not what he was. In November his own club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, confessed as much: ‘Rio’s almost 33 and he’s obviously lost a yard of pace he had five years ago.’ Ferguson went on to say that Ferdinand would have to ‘tailor’ his game differently and get used to being part of a rotated squad.
And while Ferdinand may have enjoyed a relatively consistent run in the Man Utd team since the end of January – a period which can hardly be counted as one of the club’s most successful – as recently as last month Ferguson was continuing to cast doubt on Ferdinand’s physical powers: ‘You play something like a game every four days. Rio Ferdinand couldn’t do that.’ So when the former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson defended Hodgson, saying ‘Roy has his reasons’, he had a point. ‘Many try to connect the dots between the race allegations against John Terry and Roy leaving Ferdinand out’, Eriksson said, ‘but I know there is no truth in these claims’.
And yet in the eyes of the righteous re-modellers of football and its fans, arguing the toss about who should be selected on football grounds, as fans always have done, is beside the point. As British prime minister David Cameron’s ‘racism in football’ summit showed earlier this year, for those politicians and campaigners currently colonising football, seizing upon its popularity as an opportunity to instruct and educate the masses, the game of football itself is far less important than the social ends it allegedly serves. And right now, football is seen as the means to address the racism that they wrongly believe continues to lurk in the cranial recesses of your average fan. ‘Just because people on a pitch or in a crowd are not openly racist or prejudiced’, wrote one pundit, ‘it does not mean attitudes have changed’. And so changing those attitudes has become football’s overriding purpose, its raison d’être.
And that is also the ground on which Hodgson’s critics ultimately believe his selection policy should have been based. The question for them is: do Hodgson’s decisions further official anti-racist values or hamper them? This is nothing short of an invitation to pick the team on non-footballing grounds. In the words of one broadsheet commentator, once the racism allegations had been levelled at John Terry, the FA should have ‘overlook[ed] him for the tournament’. What’s important here is not how well someone plays football, but how usefully they play the role model. And that is Terry’s problem. In these terms, he is not useful. He is not a willing conduit for contemporary politically correct etiquette.
In fact, he is now an obstacle, not to mention possibly the most sneered-at player in the England set-up, complete with his own mocking Guardian acronym, EBLJT (England’s Brave and Loyal John Terry). In comparison, ‘no wonder’ players were surprised by Ferdinand’s omission, remarked another commentator: ‘He is a great role model, in demand by everyone from politicians to campaigning groups, working at combating racism, knife crime and youth unemployment.’ No mention of his waning football powers, chronic back problems and knackered legs.
It is a worrying precedent. If the authority of Roy Hodgson rests on his footballing nous, then the increasing use of football for social and political ends can only undermine that authority. In fact, why bother having a national football manager at all? Why not simply get an anti-racism taskforce to appoint a national team instead? If groups like Kick It Out get their way, that is exactly what will happen.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked