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A united approach: Tackling racism in football in 2011

Martin Caparrotta examines the issue of racism in British football and asks why it is still a problem in 2011

Martin Caparrotta
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peter odemwingie
Peter Odemwingie suffered racist abuse in Russia before moving to West BromPhoto: Soccer.ru

peter odemwingie

British football’s anti-racism campaigns shine through the story of Peter Odemwingie.

The 29-year-old winger, born to a Russian Tatar mother and a Nigerian father in Uzbekistan, was subjected to weekly torrents of racist abuse during his three-year spell at Lokomotiv Moscow.

He opted to seek refuge in England by joining West Bromwich Albion last August – and it instantly became clear he had made the right decision.

Not because just days after the transfer his former club’s fans unfurled a banner with a banana on it emblazoned with ‘Thanks West Brom’.

But because his new club’s supporters felt it their responsibility to respond. Their banner in reply at The Hawthorns read: ‘Thanks Lokomotiv’ and was accompanied by a picture of Odemwingie celebrating the winner he scored on his debut against Sunderland.

The notion of a black footballer using a move to England as a means to escape racism would have been unthinkable back in the early years of former Aston Villa and Manchester City defender Earl Barrett’s career.

I’d hear a section of the crowd shout racist abuse and it echoed around the stadium. It was a horrible feeling.
Ex-Aston Villa and Manchester City defender Earl Barrett

Barrett, who is now an ambassador for the anti-racism group Kick It Out, recalls how racism was embedded in the game when he was starting out.

“Nowadays people find it really difficult to believe that racism was a taboo subject back then,” says Barrett, 43. “At the time it was seen as a bit of banter but it was actually verbal abuse.”

Racist calling directed at Barrett would reverberate around the semi-deserted stadiums during reserve team games when he began his career as a teenager in 1983.

“There were only handful of fans in the whole stadium, usually around 50 if that, but I’d hear a section of them shout racist abuse and it echoed around the stadium. It was a horrible feeling.”

But rather than let it get to him, Barrett “shut it out” and concentrated on seizing the promising opportunity that lay before him.

“I just focused on football and kept my head down,” he says. “It happened a few times and I didn’t say anything to anybody.

“I didn’t want to rock the boat because it was a fantastic opportunity for me to make a career out of football and do well.

“I felt that if I said something people would see me as a troublemaker.”

Today, racism within English football grounds has been quelled from a harsh bark to a muffled whimper.

“Twenty or 30 years ago our society was a bit narrow-minded, we were set in our ways,” Barrett explains. “Now, everybody has been brought up to accept diversity and to understand it.”

But although the situation for most of football’s elite may have improved of late, racism is still an issue in the lower echelons of the sport.

“The battle has not been won at all,” says Danny Lynch of Kick It Out, the charity formed in 1997 to challenge discrimination in the game. “We have a reporting function so if and when people hear anything, inside or outside the ground, they can call or email and we’re still privy to incidents that take place.”

But having seen occurrences of racist behaviour in stadiums sway away from the frequent to the rare, Paul Kearns of Show Racism the Red Card, warns of a false dawn.

“People who may be inherently racist keep quiet for 90 minutes on a Saturday because they know it’s not allowed within the grounds,” explains Kearns.”But it doesn’t mean they’re not racist, it just means they know they’re forced to behave in a certain way in that environment.

“There is a danger if we think that because people are quiet for 90 minutes we have gotten rid of it. But we’ve only really gotten rid of it in the stadiums.

“It has improved considerably within the game but it definitely hasn’t gone away.”

But as the battle against racism does continue to edge gradually in the right direction, Kick It Out is steadily addressing other issues in the game that fall under the group’s “equality and inclusion” mantra.

Racial equality, both on the pitch and in the dugout, is one such matter now receiving more of the charity’s attention.

When Notts County manager Paul Ince and Charlton boss Chris Powell shook hands at the final whistle after their League One clash last week, the majority of the 8,000 spectators gathered in Meadow Lane will have been unaware they were watching the only two black managers in the entire Football League—92 clubs in all—come face-to-face.

“There’s still a complete imbalance,” says Lynch. “Both in terms of the amount of coaches we’ve got qualified and the amount of coaches actually in the game.”

However, Britain’s black population is still much better represented than the Asian community.

“We’ve got 3,000 professional footballers and five of them are British-Asian,” he continues. “We need to look at the reasons why because it’s clearly not representative of the country as a whole.”

The glaring disparity, Lynch says, may stem from an out-dated perception of the game.

“There’s a huge thirst for football from the Asian community but that doesn’t seem to translate,” he continues.

“One of the things we hear from the people we work with is that the profession of being a footballer isn;t really seen as something that Asian families necessarily want their kids to get into – there’s still a little bit of a stigma attached to the game.

“Whether that’s come from a perceived drinking culture or a perceived hooligan culture I don’t know, but I think that certain quarters don’t see it as a particularly wholesome game.”

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