They say that football and politics should never mix, but in this day and age that is near impossible. We live in a time of extreme political tension in the UK, with just three days before the country’s fourth General Election of the decade- twice as many as we were due.
On top of that, we are stuck in an endless Brexit cycle, nine months overdue from our departure date from the EU. British politics couldn’t be in more turmoil and chaos than it is today, and that has affected everything within the country: democracy, society, and football.
Last Saturday, the 179th Manchester derby was overshadowed by yet another incident of vile racism. Manchester United ran out 2-1 winners over Manchester City at the Etihad, in an entertaining grudge match that lived up to expectations. That is, in the action itself rather than what happened in the stands.
When Manchester United midfielder Fred went over to take a corner, he was viciously assaulted by City fans. Just metres away from his own fans in the away end, the home fans threw bottles and lighters at him, with some striking the Brazilian from point blank range.
Worst of all, Fred and a number of other United players were subject to racist abuse from the Manchester City fans, with one man in particular going infamously viral for making ‘monkey gestures’ towards the visiting players. It was painful to just watch on as a football fan, making it incomprehensible to think how the targeted players feel.
Racism in football has been a problem for decades, but it seems to have dangerously spiked in recent years. Numerous acts of discrimination have been called out in the sport this year, from the English national team’s reception in Bulgaria and Montenegro to the repeated incidents of racism across Italy.
This is no new phenomena, but it seems odd that the media and politicians in the UK are the ones lambasting it. They are doing the right thing in raising awareness and condemning these recurring acts of racism, yet it is hypocritical of us to be criticising other countries to such an extent when we are just as bad.
Look at racism in football in the UK alone, and you will see the travesty of the situation. This piece on Fred comes exactly a year after Manchester City star Raheem Sterling was racially abused, during his side’s defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. That was one of the most shocking stories of the year, yet one year on we have witnessed an exact carbon copy.
Take a glance back at the year, and you can recall countless acts of racism in the Premier League. An Everton fan made a racist gesture to Tottenham’s South Korean winger Son Heung-min in November, and just last weekend a 13 year-old Burnley supporter was caught doing the same act to the same player.
Racism is the biggest problem we have to tackle in football, and certainly one of the biggest issues faced in the UK by all clubs and the Football Association. But why does it even exist here? It is largely prevalent due to what is happening off the pitch, in the political world that has been fuelled by hate and discrimination for years.
The 2016 EU referendum seems like an ancient memory for many, but it was that result that incited disgusting discrimination nationwide. Following – and even preceding – the decision that the UK was leaving the EU, hate crime towards ethnic minorities rose drastically across England and Wales.
According to Home Office statistics, there was a 40% increase of racism across Great Britain, with 103,379 hate crimes recorded in England and Wales in 2018/19. It saw a 10% increase from the previous year, while hate crimes regarding race have doubled over the last five years.
These shocking statistics and the increased levels of racism within football are no anomalies, with both directly linked. Brexit has incited discrimination to a height not seen in decades, something which hasn’t been aided by the appointment of an openly racist Prime Minister at the helm of the country.
As Gary Neville said when commenting on the Manchester derby incident: “You are watching the prime minister’s debate where he is talking about migration to this country and people having to have certain levels. It fuels it all the time. It has got worse over the last few years in this country and not just in football.
“We always judge other countries on how they deal with racism, but we are poor with dealing with it ourselves.”
Neville is absolutely spot on. We can speak about how abhorrent racism is and fight to eradicate it from football and society, but we are not focusing enough on how it is affecting ourselves in our own country. It is all well and good calling out other nations across Europe who are also battling racism, yet there needs to be more action within our own shores.
There is one real question at the moment: what are we going to do about racism in football? We have had countless acts of racism in the last few years, but that only continues an endless toxic cycle where we condemn the racism, call for change and go back to our normal lives. That is not normal, and nothing will change if we don’t change.