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The Biggest Problem in Football... 'The Removal of the Individual'

Artur Grigoryant, head of the Russian FA’s disciplinary committee, is currently facing international media condemnation for suggesting that black players who react to racist provocation from crowds are not victims, and that they should be punished, following recent events with the likes of Christopher Samba.

These comments clang especially hard considering the context – in the run up to the 2018 Russian World Cup, a Fare network report into the scale of racism in Russian football recently highlighted more than 200 discriminatory incidents. Sepp Blatter subsequently told associated press “I am aware of the report – sure, we are concerned, definitely”. A dreadfully uninspiring response -- even by Blatter’s standards -- to a report that according to its director Piara Powar...

"shows a really quite gruesome picture of a domestic league which is full of aspects of racism and xenophobia.”
Evidence, at least anecdotally, is not hard to find. English fans will remember Manchester City playing a 2014 Champions League group game at CSKA Moscow behind closed doors – the result of a three match ban imposed by UEFA following violence and racism perpetrated by CSKA fans in Europe. Former Brazil international Roberto Carlos walked off the pitch in protest during a 2011 game for Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala. After the incident, Russian officials vowed to ‘stamp out racism’ – the fan who threw the banana was caught, claimed that it landed close to Carlos ‘by chance’ and that he threw it ‘out of anger, not racism’. He was subsequently released without punishment.

Fellow Brazilian Hulk also faced similar abuse after he became the first black player to sign for Zenit St Petersburg. The club’s largest fan group Landscrona subsequently wrote in an open letter that black players were “forced down Zenit’s throat” and that “gay players are unworthy of our great city”.

It is easy to think that British football has left this kind of nonsense behind but the recent footage of travelling fans in Paris proves that, despite the advances we have made in the past 30 years as a footballing society, racism continues to blight our footballing culture.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were an exceptionally grim period for English football. Paul Canoville– the first black player to play for Chelsea – was racially abused by his own fans whilst warming up before his debut against Crystal Palace in 1982. Frank Sinclair, who would eventually go on to play for Chelsea himself, said that as a nine year-old watching from the stands...

“being in the minority and seeing the abuse players like Paul got was terrible … after joining as a school boy, it got to the point I was thinking maybe I didn’t want to stay”.

Cyrille Regis, a cult hero for West Brom in the late 70s and early 80s, endured similar abuse: fans chorused monkey chants whenever he touched the ball, bananas were thrown at him from the crowd and after his call up for the England squad – he would become the third black player to be internationally capped at the highest level – Regis was sent a bullet in the post, wrapped with a note reading “if you put your foot on our Wembley turf, you’ll get one of these through your knees”.

Whilst the absolute majority of modern football fans would now be disgusted and appalled by this history of abuse, its pertinent to acknowledge the remarkable similarity this holds with the treatment of women in the game today. Footage recently emerged of Chelsea’s first team doctor Eva Carneiro being abused by fans on the touchline at Old Trafford. Up until the release of the footage, United – as well as City, whose fans were the subject of another recording -- denied that the abuse had taken place and refused to act on it. Chelsea have since confirmed that this is far from an isolated incident and sadly, that is not difficult to believe.

For the growing number of women working in football, it is an uphill struggle. A Women in Football survey last season found that of the more than two thirds of women working in football who had been subjected to sexism, 89% said they had not reported it for fear it would not be taken seriously.

The difference in the reaction to racist and sexist abuse in football grounds is no doubt caused by the dearth of women involved in the game – black players have been a key part of British football for decades now, and those pioneers who were not put off by the ignorance of some fans have paved the way for generations of players who can now play football in relative freedom from abuse.

The same is not true for women – Sian Massey-Ellis, the official who was the target of Andy Gray and Richard Key’s misogyny in 2011, is still one of only three female officials in the football league. Dr Carneiro is one of only a handful of female support staff. It is difficult to imagine that the women who attend football games – be they our friends, sisters, wives, girlfriends, or mothers – will feel any different to how a young Frank Sinclair would have felt in the stands at Chelsea - ostracised and intimidated by a footballing culture polluted by the ignorance and hate of a vocal minority.

Racism, sexism, homophobia – all of these attitudes ultimately achieve the same thing: removal of the individual. These -isms in football do not exist in isolation, and they are inevitably a product of wider society. But football fans and institutions can be a powerful force for change, and attitudinal change – beginning on the terraces – can kick this ugliness out for good.