Fantasy football racism

Football provided the template for the racialisation of trivial incidents that led to the 'Jade v Shilpa' debacle.

Duleep Allirajah

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Seeing as everyone and his wife has been opining for England about the Celebrity Big Brother race row, I thought I’d throw in my own twopennethworth. On the face of it, CBB appears to have only a tenuous connection with football, namely Danielle Lloyd. The former Miss Great Britain, who was contemptuously branded ‘a go-nowhere tit flasher’ by Charlie Brooker in the Guardian, also happens to be a WAG; in other words she is the girlfriend of footballer Teddy Sheringham.

But Lloyd is not the only link with football. It’s the way that the concept of racism has been disfigured beyond all recognition that has parallels with football. The verbal spat between Jade Goody and Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty barely resembles the racism that I knew and loathed. Call me old-fashioned, but I always took racism to mean the unequal treatment of black people rather than a few white D-list celebs bitching about an Indian film star. And this brings me, somewhat circuitously, to football.

Monkey chants and racial taunts used to be common on the terraces in the Seventies and Eighties, but are thankfully very rare these days. However, while black players are no longer pelted with bananas, football has long provided a template for the kind of overblown racialisation of relatively trivial incidents that we’ve seen with the CBB race furore.

The trend was started in 1996 when Aussie goalkeeper Mark Bosnich was fined £1,000 for making a comedy Hitler salute towards Spurs fans. Another well-known example of imaginary racism was Skinner and Baddiel’s celebration of the chant, ‘He’s got a pineapple on his head’, which was directed at Nottingham Forest striker Jason Lee’s dreadlocks. The player blamed his subsequent loss of confidence and downward career trajectory on the lampooning he suffered as a result of the Fantasy Football League TV programme. Two football academics, Jon Garland and Mike Rowe, accused Skinner and Baddiel of racism by encouraging a chant that expressed an ignorance ‘of the cultural significance of dreadlocks to many black people’.

According to Garland and Rowe, the pineapple chant illustrated ‘the capacity of contemporary culture to articulate racialised themes in a coded manner that lacks overt racist language or references’. In other words, you can be racist without even being racist; ‘unwitting racism’, as the Macpherson Report into the investigation of the killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence called it. The words you utter might not be intentionally racist but, as long as there are trained sociologists on hand to decode hidden racial meaning, you can still be bang to rights. Never mind fantasy football, this sounds like a chronic case of fantasy racism to me.

Once you decouple racism from the notion of inequality, then all manner of cultural slurs can be defined as racist. In October 2005 Reading striker Dave Kitson complained that he had suffered from anti-ginger racism. ‘It amazes me how nobody has addressed it before’, complained the flame-haired forward. ‘Just because I am a footballer doesn’t mean someone can call me a ginger whatever. I am a sensitive guy, maybe oversensitive, but abuse doesn’t just roll off my back.’

Refreshingly, players’ union boss Gordon Taylor refused to indulge the Ginger Whinger. ‘It belittles racism to compare the two issues. It is just an opportunity for someone to have a go in the same way as if you are bald or fat’, he said. ‘Dave should be proud of his hair. It makes him stand out if he is having a good game and he could always dye it if he wants.’ I’m surprised that militant gingers haven’t protested that dyeing one’s hair is a form of ethnic self-cleansing.

Kitson isn’t the only prominent ginger to cry racism. Carrot-headed pop star Mick Hucknall has also played the ginger victim card. ‘I’ve had a 20-year-career being called ginger’, he said, ‘and it’s an insult.’ (Personally, I think 20 years of ginger abuse is scant punishment for Hucknall’s crimes against music.) Some people believe that taunting gingers has its roots in English antipathy towards the Irish and Scots, but I reckon that’s just the product of a fertile ginger imagination. Gingers are neither an ethnic group, nor do they face any systematic discrimination. Dave Kitson’s complaint illustrates the extent to which racism has become trivialised and conflated with a bit of innocuous name-calling.

The obsessive tendency to view everything through race-tinted spectacles found its most celebrated expression in the reaction to Eric Cantona’s famous kung-fu assault on Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons in 1996. Newspaper reports about Simmons’ right-wing sympathies coupled with allegations that he had provoked Cantona by screaming ‘Fuck off back to France, you French motherfucker!’ led to the retrospective reinterpretation of the king-fu kick as an anti-racist act. Former England winger John Barnes, for example, remarked that it was ‘very ironic that it took a white Frenchman to bring home to the nation the issue of racism in football’.

One Cantonista even described the kung-fu kick as an ‘instinctive expression of a flawless moral judgement’. As with the spurious phenomenon of ginger abuse, the Cantona case reveals how anti-racism has mutated into an instrument for regulating un-PC football banter.

There were echoes of the racialisation of Cantona’s kung-fu kick in the reaction to Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in last year’s World Cup final. Here again the victim of the assault, Marco Materazzi, was redefined by Zidane’s apologists as the culprit for having racially provoked the French captain. The evidence for the alleged racial taunt was downright flimsy to say the least. Among the conflicting interpretations by lipreaders of Materazzi’s words were claims that the Italian defender had called Zidane either a ‘dirty terrorist’ or ‘the son of a terrorist whore’. Zidane himself has never claimed that Materazzi’s taunts were racial, rather that they were about his mother and sister. But the absence of any proven racial content hasn’t stopped his headbutt being reinterpreted as a blow against racism. If we follow the logic of the Macpherson definition, both Zidane and Cantona’s assaults can be seen as acts of unwitting anti-racism.

It could be argued that a zero-intolerance approach towards any act that might be construed as racist is a sign of progress; an indication of our greater cultural sensitivity. I beg to differ. Reducing racism to a matter of cultural correctness is a huge step backwards. It means that inequality remains untouched while anti-racism has become little more than a convenient stick with which to beat uncouth white working-class people for not observing the correct racial manners.

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