Saving footie fans from their inner fascist

The increasingly unhinged moral crusade against racism in football is anti-prole loathing dressed up as high liberal principle.

Brendan O'Neill
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Britain’s great and good get such a moral kick from opposing racism in football, from pointing a long and bony judgemental finger at foreigner-fearing Neanderthals in the stands, that if such racism didn’t exist they’d probably have to invent it. Oh wait, they already did.

This weekend, as the alleged scourge of footie racism once again elbowed everything from Syria to recession off the front pages, it became clear that there doesn’t even have to be evidence of racism for these fan-loathin’ moralists to get on their high horses.

The latest terraces incident to give these faint-hearted followers of football a fit of Victorian vapours involved England fans chanting allegedly horrible stuff about black brothers Rio and Anton Ferdinand. During England’s 8-0 win over San Marino last week, England fans are said to have shouted something about chucking the Ferdinands on a bonfire, in presumed vengeance for Anton’s role in toppling former England captain John Terry, whom Anton accused of calling him a ‘black cunt’. The England fans are also said to have chanted about Rio, who withdrew from the England squad in controversial circumstances, ‘We know what you are’ – apparently a cryptic reference (very cryptic, I fancy) to the fact that Rio, like his brother, is a ‘black cunt’.

Journalists who love football but loathe its lifeblood – its fans – almost smashed their iPads bashing out spittle-flecked columns condemning this foul anti-Ferdinands racism. The well-funded but not well-meaning ‘anti-racism’ industry that has sprung up to police fans in recent years shook its head in collective disapproval of England’s moronic chanters. This incident shows that ‘race hate is still part of our game’, declared the Mirror; it proves ‘English football is racist’, decreed the Guardian.

There’s only one problem with this puffed-up looking-down at racist English football: there’s no hard evidence that England fans chanted anything racist in San Marino last week. The Football Association, loving nothing more than to find some fleeting incident of fan racism it can be ostentatiously outraged by, has scoured video coverage of the San Marino game and has found no ‘recorded evidence’ of ‘discriminatory chanting’ by England fans. Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), the pan-European group that made the complaint about England’s fans to FIFA, admits it had ‘no eye-witnesses at the game’ and says its complaint was based ‘partially on media comments’. But it remains convinced – in the same way Mormons are convinced that Joseph Smith found a golden book under a tree, I suppose – that at least ‘a handful of [England] supporters’ chanted racist stuff in San Marino.

Got that? On the basis of unproven rumours about unrecorded chants allegedly made by a tiny number of fans, the whole of English football has been denounced as racist. It’s enough to make Torquemada’s evidence-gathering methods seem judicious by comparison. Let’s call a spade a spade (that is not a racist statement, I swear): it’s pure hearsay that fuelled these latest fulminations against England fans. As a BBC headline put it, ‘England fan claims are hearsay’. Like those witch-burners of old who just knew that the old crone at the end of the lane was guilty of something, today’s fan-bashing, pseudo-anti-racist elites will light upon any whispered claim or half-baked tale to prove something that exists in their hearts, if not in the real world: that football fans, especially the blobby, tattooed, En-ger-land variety, are racist.

When the moralists who watch football through racism goggles aren’t being guided by hearsay, they’re getting carried away by hyperbole. The other isn’t-modern-football-foul? story that hit the headlines this weekend was the arrival of the eccentric Italian Mussolini-admirer and football legend Paolo Di Canio to replace Martin O’Neill as manager of Sunderland FC. Reading the coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking a zombie SS had goose-stepped into Sunderland to set up a ghoulish new headquarters.

Di Canio certainly has strange views, having previously claimed to be a fascist but not a racist, and having once being photographed doing an Il Duce-style salute while wearing a freakishly angry grimace. But the idea that his arrival into the game’s managerial elite will take us back to ‘the darker days of English football’, and is a sign that ‘football has lost its battle against extremism’, and is reminiscent of a time when it was acceptable across Europe to do fascist salutes (‘and we know what happened next’, warns one columnist, darkly), is bonkers. No, the moving to Sunderland of a balding, hotheaded Italian manager is not the same as the Night of the Long Knives. If you think it is, you need to read a history book. Or stop taking drugs.

The macchiato-spilling horror that greeted Sunderland’s employment of Di Canio is driven by the same prejudices behind the evidence-lite San Marino racist fans fiasco: the idea that English football is so brimming with dim-witted xenophobia, so close to going back to the banana-throwing days of the Eighties, that simply to have someone like Di Canio in a Premier League hotseat could potentially unleash mayhem. It is not really Di Canio, who after all is just one strange man, that observers fear; it’s the allegedly fascism-receptive seething pit of fans, the tattooed mob, refugees from the ‘darker days of football’, who might be marshalled by Di Canio’s wayward ideas and words.

What this weekend’s unhinged panic about football racism demonstrates is how much this debate is driven by prejudice rather than evidence, by elite fears rather than hard facts. In fact, the more that terraces-based racism fades into history, the more obsessed with it anti-racist poseurs become. There’s no correlation whatsoever between their moral crusading and historical, tangible reality. They desperately latch on to isolated incidents of a fan shouting something racist as evidence that ‘English football is racist’ – which is a bit like saying Morrisons is racist because someone from the BNP shops there. Today, racism in football is in the twisted eye of the beholder, or perhaps in the prissiness of the beholder: it is the fact that these fan-fearing prudes inhabit the shrink-wrapped worlds of politics, the media and quangos, where lingo is heavily policed and passion is virtually a crime, that they believe any expression of less-than-PC sentiment by 50,000 possibly sozzled blokes must by definition be hateful. More adept at adhering to linguistic rules than letting rip, they find stadium rowdiness utterly alien, and frightening.

The reason accusations of racism and fears of fascism can run ahead of any evidence is because the crusade against racism in football is not a response to any surge in hatred on the terraces, but rather to a lack in the lives of the crusaders themselves. This is really about addressing campaigners’ own need for a platform on which they can do some moral preening, and by extension their need for an inferior constituency they can morally preen themselves in contrast to.

This nurtures not only fact-free but also utterly inverted moral posturing. So for example, even though English football is brimming with black players, still it can be accused of being racist by the Guardian, a newspaper so white it makes FW de Klerk’s Christmas card list look like the census of Barbados. The last time the media industry did one of those self-flagellating ethnic-minority head-counts, the Guardian staff was found to be 4.9 per cent black or Asian – compared with English football’s whopping 30 per cent of black players. In the upside down world of moral panic about ‘football racism’, a sport peppered with and enjoyed by millions of blacks can be branded racist by a paper written and read predominantly by whites. Or consider former Labour foreign secretary David Miliband’s decision to resign from the board of Sunderland FC after Di Canio joined. Miliband has voted for or overseen wars on Iraqis, Afghanis and Libyans, yet still he can score moral points by taking a stand against the alleged racism of a football manager. You know racism has been reduced to a mere issue of social etiquette when a politician responsible for the deaths of loads of brown people can be cheered for flouncing out of a club because it was taken over by someone with an Il Duce tattoo.

The war on so-called football racism isn’t driven by principle, but by an old-fashioned fear of yobbos, and a loathing of how they behave for 90 minutes a week. Well, to employ a bit of terraces-style talk, if you don’t like what happens in football stadiums, fuck off somewhere else.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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