Below is an English-language version of my new exclusive column for Football.Blue, a new website presenting European football news to Japanese fans in association with The Independent newspaper.
In 1982, a 20-year-old winger called Paul Canoville became the first black player ever to represent Chelsea. His debut, a Second Division fixture at Selhurst Park, was memorable for the worst possible reasons. As he rose from the substitutes’ bench to begin his warm-up, Canoville was met with cries of “Sit down, you black cunt” from the stands. A gathering of spectators then sang in unison: “We don’t want the nigger, we don’t want the nigger, la la la la”. A banana was thrown.
Perhaps most troublingly of all, these were not the actions of Crystal Palace supporters. The vile, racist profanities had come from the away end – the Chelsea fans supposedly there to cheer on Canoville and his teammates.
Numb with shock, Canoville’s reaction was to supress the trauma. In a climate that liked to pretend there was no issue, this was probably the only way. After one game, he went home and relayed to friends with forced excitement how he had scored the opener. He deliberately left out the part where Chelsea fans had shouted to him that, in their view, the score was still 0-0 – a goal by a black man didn’t count.
After two years of unrelenting humiliation, Herman Ouseley of the Ethnic Minorities Unit at the Greater London Council went to visit the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, and suggested they work together to stamp out this abuse. As Ouseley later recalled to The Guardian, “He (Bates) said they didn’t have a problem, and that the security people will see me off the site. And some big goons in their anoraks saw me off the premises.”
In 1986, a drunken teammate called Canoville a “black cunt” during a fight in preseason. This was not an isolated incident but proved to be the final straw. Rather than supporting their victimised player, who had helped them avoid relegation to the Third Division then win the Second Division championship, the club recommended he accept a £50,000 transfer to Reading.
Out of sight, out of mind. The racism, and its tacit acceptance, was not a story because nobody wanted to talk about it. This was just how things were in English football back then.
In 2015, Canoville is back representing Chelsea again. Sometimes for the Old Boys team, but more significantly as part of the club’s Building Bridges initiative. Now 52, he goes around local schools hosting anti-discrimination workshops where he talks about his experiences and ensures that today’s children know how, and why, racism is totally unacceptable.
Chelsea have actively supported Kick It Out, an organisation formed by the now Lord Ouseley in 1993 to kick racism out of football; as well as Show Racism the Red Card, a charity established in 1996 to spread the message through educational initiatives. With Building Bridges, matches at Stamford Bridge are preceded by videos promoting equality and accompanied by anti-discrimination messages on the stadium’s electronic advertising hoardings. As had been planned for some time beforehand, last Saturday’s home fixture against Burnley was specifically designated as a “Game for Equality”.
Here, the Building Bridges logo was emblazoned upon the Chelsea players’ shirts, while the club’s official website published accompanying features opposing racism, homophobia, sexism and all forms of discrimination under the campaign slogan: “Support Chelsea, Support Equality”. One such article was an interview with star striker Diego Costa on eliminating “discrimination of any kind, not just in football, but in the wider community”. Identifying the Blues’ responsibility as one of England’s leading clubs, the Brazilian-born, Spain international declared, “Chelsea can set an example with regards to equality within the game”.
Chelsea’s activities have been extraordinary, yet not singularly so. Every football club has done its bit to help realise an enormous paradigm shift on our terraces over the past quarter of a century. This is just how things are in English football today.
And this, of course, was why it was all the more appalling to witness the utterly repulsive actions of a small group of so-called Chelsea ‘supporters’ on the Métro ahead of the Champions League visit to Paris Saint-Germain – on the same day that Diego Costa interview was posted. The old excuse offered by many casual purveyors of racial abuse in the 1980s – that they were just going along with the crowd, doing what everybody else did – doesn’t hold anymore (if it even did back then) in a society where we are categorically taught that discrimination is taboo.
There has been an outpouring of sympathy for the victim, condemnation of the perpetrators, and emphasis that the actions of a minority do not speak for Chelsea supporters or English football as a whole. As José Mourinho said ahead of the Burnley game, “I felt ashamed when I found out, but these supporters do not represent the club”. But at the same time there is a profound sadness that these racists, no matter how small a minority they may be, should exist at all in 2015.
Like with hooliganism, racism in football is not a social problem caused by football, but rather symptomatic of problems in deeper society for which football is used as a convenient stage to surface. English society in the 1980s endured a ferocious rich-poor divide under the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, which battled with labour unions and sneered upon the football-going classes. The manifestation of these tensions was a root cause of the foul discrimination and violence that characterised many football terraces during this most unpleasant era for the sport. The far-right National Front infiltrated many hooligan gangs, including the Chelsea Headhunters, distributing literature and orchestrating the reception that black players like Canoville would receive.
To English football’s great credit, it recognised that the power for social problems to manifest themselves here could be turned on its head; since the 1990s, football has used its influence to play a leading role in quashing racism within society as a whole. Yet, as Stan Collymore warned The Guardian in 2012, we might have been complacent in thinking we had won the battle already. Today’s racists, he says, are not just a small bunch of middle-aged skinheads stuck in the past: “They’re from every age and every background, and a lot think the eastern Europeans have come over and nicked their jobs, just like dad said the blacks and Asians did years ago. And in a recession, we know right-wing ideas and principles tend to come to the fore.”
Certainly, the economic situation draws some parallels with the 1980s. Politically, a profound lack of public confidence in any of the three major parties has catalysed the sudden rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – a coyer far right offering which smiles and says no, no, we’re not racists, we just don’t want any Romanians living next door. But another new factor is social media, where anonymity leads some to air extreme views without fear of reproach (evidently ignorant of the legal action successfully pursued against online abusers of public figures like Collymore in the past). Just as dangerously, the more openly far right Britain First has exploited the propensity of others to retweet before they think in order to propagate its innocent-at-first-glance, populist agenda.
As I wrote at
the time, Chelsea arguably missed an important
opportunity a couple of years back when it chose to prioritise the reputation
of its club captain, John Terry, over the reemphasis of a clear, anti-racism
message. The same could be said about Liverpool and Luis Suárez over the
Patrice Evra affair. But it is absolutely vital that no such mistake is made
The power of our sport and of social media is already being harnessed for good in identifying the Paris Métro racists to the police. English football must now ensure this affair serves to ensure its endeavours to kick racism out are furthered, not forgotten.