That’s enough anti-racist blather about Blatter

The obnoxious FIFA president had a point for once – and the real targets of the moral backlash are the masses who watch and play football.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

When the presenter on the Talksport radio phone-in (the fount of all football wisdom) declared that ‘NO-ONE IN BRITAIN’ could defend what FIFA president Sepp Blatter had done, it was clear that something Evil must be afoot. When the media storm became a political one, and the figurehead of world football was denounced not only by the prime minister of the United Kingdom, but also by his secretary of state for culture, media and sport and even by the children’s minister, followed by the Labour leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, it was obvious we must be facing a crisis of national and international importance that could affect the next generation.

What crime against sport, humanity and the children could the old fool Blatter have committed to provoke such an outcry? Had he karate-kicked David Beckham? Turned up at the FIFA fancy dress ball in a Nazi uniform? Or perhaps called an African football official a ‘f***ing black c**t’?

Not quite. What Blatter did was give an interview to CNN, in which he was asked about the extent of racism in football today – a question, incidentally, prompted by the allegations of racial abuse facing England captain John Terry. This is the response that brought the civilised world down on Blatter’s head: ‘There is no racism, there is maybe one of the players towards another, he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one. But also the one who is affected by that, he should say that this is a game. We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination.’

Could these three badly constructed sentences have been the cause of such general we-can’t-believe-our-ears! hysteria for the past week? What was all that really about?

At the risk of contradicting the omniscient Talksport muppet, we might dare to suggest that, notwithstanding his politically incorrect language, the obnoxious Blatter for once had a point – indeed he had two points. And that the real target of the backlash has not just been the imperious Blatter, but more importantly, the working-class foot soldiers who play and watch football.

Briefly, on Blatter’s two reasonable points. First, it is beyond doubt that racism in and around football in a country such as Britain has declined dramatically over recent decades, both on and off the pitch. Things are now so different to the atmosphere of casual racism in which I grew up playing and watching football in the Sixties and Seventies that to say ‘there is no racism’ can barely be called an exaggeration, never mind a lie. This is not, however, as Blatter and his cronies always claim, because of FIFA’s official anti-racist initiatives or the self-righteous ‘Kick it Out’ campaigns over here. Indeed, these things have mushroomed as racism has declined. It is far more because of the way our society has changed – and football follows where society leads, rather than ‘setting standards’ as some imagine. That is why when I was an angry young man we campaigned against racism, not racism in football.

Secondly, Blatter also had a point when he suggested, in his own cack-handed way, that offensive or abusive words or actions that do occur on the football pitch should be treated differently from what happens off it. It has long been accepted that football is not normal life.

As spiked’s sports columnist Duleep Allirajah recently argued, in response to the controversies over alleged racial slurs in the Premier League, the traditional view in sport has been that what’s said on the pitch stays on the pitch – and winding up your opponents is part of the game: ‘This isn’t genteel Radio 4 repartee; it’s war minus the shooting. The traditional toleration of sledging is premised on a distinction between public and private. What’s said on the pitch is considered private and therefore outside the scope of conventional etiquette. As Arsene Wenger said of the Terry incident, players will say things “in a passionate situation” during a game that they don’t really mean…. Whatever insults were traded during the game, players are expected to shake hands and leave these animosities when the match is over. Yes, you need a thick skin, but the rules of engagement are fairly clear – or at least they used to be.’

After all, we do not treat somebody kicking us on the football pitch in the same way as we would if it happened in the street. So why should what they say be any different? The new attempt to impose a polite form of etiquette not only on the terraces but on the pitch is symptomatic of the muddying of the line between what is considered public and private these days. Football can only be the loser. The fact that not only the FA but the (thought) police have become involved in investigating something like the Terry business is far more dangerous than anything Blatter might say.

I don’t really want to defend Blatter any more than anybody else does. He certainly should not be running international football – though the alternatives on offer are little better. But the latest outburst of anti-Blatter outrage has not only been about him. The real target has been football players and fans, which largely means working-class men.

The theme of most of the complaints has been that by not simply repeating the official anti-racist mantra, Blatter’s words will somehow give the green light to everybody else around football to let out their inner racist. Much as genteel critics in the media and politics dislike Blatter, the people they fear and loath far more are the crowd, whom they believe harbour racial prejudice whether they know it or not. The idea of ‘role models’ who can spark monkey-see-monkey-do behaviour is bad enough when it is applied to celebrity footballers. The notion that a bloated suit such as Blatter can somehow set the standards that the world’s youth will follow is bizarre.

This is all a symptom of the way that football has become much more than a game. It has been turned into a national and international instrument for the moral re-education of the masses. Isolated and unpopular governments and authorities who see football as the only way they can still communicate with large numbers of people are desperate to exploit the game to promote all sorts of political agendas.

In particular, the crusade against racism in football has become a powerful way to try to impose a conformist view on the crowd and police the words and even thoughts of ‘ordinary people’. So important has this instrument of moral re-education become to the authorities that no scintilla of doubt can be entertained, no whisper of ambiguity allowed. That is why Blatter’s few clumsy and off-message words caused such consternation.

The irony is of course that FIFA itself has been a central player in this game of hunt-the-unwitting-racist. For the likes of Blatter, the World Cup is no longer just about the best team winning, but about striking a PR blow for Good against Evil and showing they are on the side of the angels. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was turned into an anti-racist festival, with team captains ludicrously required to read out Stalinist-style statements about their commitment to being good guys before the quarter finals (would they have been allowed to play if they had refused?), and Nelson Mandela wheeled out to declare that ‘[football] is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers’. Which is why of course governments want to use it to kick down the walls that stop them connecting with the working class – and why British politicians leapt at the chance to strike moral postures high up the pitch over ‘Blattergate’.

Indeed, it is striking how much this affair has been a very British kerfuffle, largely ignored by the rest of planet football. A few cynics have suggested this is to do with settling scores with Blatter over the fiasco of England’s humiliated bid for the 2018 World Cup. No doubt. But more broadly it is also about seizing the opportunity to show that Britain can still lead the world on the moral high ground, if not on the football pitch. That is a dangerous game, inviting others to point out that it was the allegation of racism against England’s captain that kicked all of this off in the first place. Those who live by the sword of self-righteousness can perish by it, too.

The worst culprits, as so often, have been the allegedly liberal-minded British pundits, screeching as if Blatter had been found guilty of Holocaust denial. These are the types who claim to love the ‘beautiful game’, yet hate the ‘ugly’ working-class people who watch and play it. At least one even went so far as to try to connect the Blatter affair with the sort of poisonous hatred that led to the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in London 18 years ago, for which two men are currently on trial. There are many things of which Sepp Blatter might be thought guilty, but that is not among them.

Enough of all the ‘anti-racist’ blather about Blatter. You need not be ‘soft’ on racism to see that he had a point – and even if he hadn’t, we should defend free speech for arrogant old fools, too. But more importantly, let’s stand up for football as the world’s game, rather than a tool for the moral re-education of the masses, before the fat man blows the whistle and it’s all over.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.

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Topics Politics


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