Saturday, 23 June 2012

Racism in Football: Why is it still alive?

It sickens me to see the issue of racism raising it's hideously ugly head yet again within the game of football. It's a strange problem in our game, as it seems to come back, appear to be solved, then a while later it returns again. Why is this? Are the people with power in football doing enough to permanently extinguish it from the game? Racism is obviously an issue which is above football. It is a problem with the most basic of human values. To discriminate against somebody because of their ethnicity makes no sense whatsoever. At the end of the day, we are all just flesh and bone. So why are there still so many brainless people in football? And why are they being allowed to paint a massive black dot over our beautiful game? 

The current European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine have brought this issue to the attention of everybody once more. Judging on various reports, most notably the Sky Sports special report, racism comes across to be a normal thing for football fans in these countries. I, however do not know enough about the issue there so I will not be going into detail with it.

The 'Lets Kick Racism Out Of Football' campaign seemed to be doing a good job. Everywhere you looked you would see advertisements for it. Be it in match programmes, on the side of the pitch, or even in football games such as Football Manager. I know there are still advertisements for it, but it seems to have dramatically faded. This should not have been the case. Racism is not an issue that you can highlight briefly and then sweep it under the carpet again. Eventually you have to deal with it properly. Another campaign that springs to mind is the 'Show Racism The Red Card' campaign. Every team had squad photos with most, if not all of the players holding up an enlarged red card with the campaigns title on it. This too seems to have disappeared. These campaigns should be running non stop. Whether racism is a current hot topic or not. The last time I saw either of these campaigns being advertised effectively was in the aftermath of the John Terry and Anton Ferdinand incident, Chelsea players wore the 'Kick it Out' t-shirts (Take note Liverpool). Even if these campaigns are still running, they are clearly not being promoted properly if I, and I'm sure many other people aren't even noticing them anymore. This part-time advertising of the problem is evident in my home league - the Airtricity League of Ireland. Whenever there is a player of a different ethnic background playing for an opposing team at my local stadium, an announcement condemning racial abuse is made. When there is not, there is no announcement. The announcement should be standard. Week in, week out. As it is, the only thing the announcement does is highlight the fact that there is a player of a different ethnicity playing in the match.

I posed the question in my opening paragraph asking are the people in power doing enough to tackle this plague on our game. Quite honestly, and perhaps controversially, I feel they are not. Racial issues are repeatedly met by underwhelming fines and strong words from UEFA. Words are not enough and as the old saying goes - "Actions speak louder than words." Clich├ęd , perhaps, but only because it's true. The fines they dish out would make you think that racism isn't actually as bad as we make it out to be. UEFA are treating it the way Irish people have treated problems for years with the mentality of "Ah, sure it'll be grand." This problem needs to be hit and hit hard. To imagine the force required to exterminate this problem, think back to when Adriano punched Marco Caneiro with both fists at the same time (Seriously, if you haven't seen that, look it up before you read any further.) 

If you ask me UEFA need to abandon the fines. They are ineffective anyway because they can not fine the respective associations enough that it will really make an impact on them. In previous years they have fined the Spanish association £45,000 in 2004, the Serbian association £16,000 in 2007 and the Croatian association £10,000 in 2008. The severity of these fines is really put into context when they fine Nicklas Bendtner £85,000 for revealing not an official UEFA sponsor. Why don't they implement a system where if a countries fans are caught engaging in racial abuse, they receive a points deduction. This might just be the only feasible solution. Russia were handed a suspended points deduction for their fans' violent behaviour in Poland. Why not go one step further and not make it not just a 'suspended' points ban for racism? If they are guilty, they must pay. 

An example of how poorly the issue is being treated was visible when Peter Odemwingie signed for West Brom from Lokomotiv Moscow of Russia. Lokomotiv fans held up a banner which read "Thanks West Brom" and had an image of a banana in the middle of it. This is appalling behaviour. Was any action taken? Not until the NIGERIAN Football Association wrote a letter to FIFA asking them to take disciplinary action. That really sums up how useless FIFA and UEFA are at combating it. The Nigerian FA had to step in to protect their countries player. Roberto Carlos recently had a banana thrown at him whilst playing for his club, Anzhi Makhachkala, also in Russia. He responded by walking off the field. He was visibly distraught as he left the field in tears. More players should respond in this way. If a player is suffering from racial abuse he should simply tell the referee who should then stop the game. If it does not stop, the game should be abandoned. There should be no tolerance.

Unfortunately, this disease is not only in the stands anymore. It has spread onto the field of play. In the last year there have been issues between Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra, John Terry and Anton Ferdinand, and Emre and Didier Zokora. Didier Zokora responded directly to the alleged words of Emre by simply assaulting him the next time they faced each other. With no intention of playing the ball, Zokora ran and volleyed Emre's sensitive parts. Amazingly, Zokora held up his hand acknowledging what he did, yet he only got a yellow card. It really is remarkable.  (Another video worth checking out.)

The Suarez/Evra incident caused a lot of divided opinions. I can't begin to comprehend why. We all know the word Suarez used and I'm not about to repeat it here. He claimed, however that in Uruguay it is a "term of endearment". I'm going out on a limb here and saying that is complete and utter rubbish. He deserved a more severe ban than what he got in my opinion. I think the ban he received of 8 games was not enough. Compared with Joey Barton's 12 game ban for several acts of violent conduct, it isn't enough. I think it undermines the whole 'Kick it Out' campaign. I'm not saying for one second that Barton didn't deserve his ban, he definitely did. All I'm saying is that Suarez deserved one of equal severity, if not more severe.

I can't finish this piece without mentioning the John Terry/Anton Ferdinand incident. Nothing has been proven yet, so I'm not going to jump to conclusions. If Terry is found guilty, he too deserves a ban. If it was my decision he should receive a ban of a similar length to Joey Barton. This is unlikely though because the FA have handed out an inferior ban to Suarez as I said above. The John Terry trial is a strange one. I don't understand why he still hasn't gone to court with the issue. Why has it been allowed to drag on for this long? Another sign that maybe racial issues aren't seen as that important in the game. It should have been dealt with immediately, instead it is dragging on. It even caused controversy in the England squad. With Roy Hodgson being left in a situation where he couldn't really pick Terry and Anton's brother, Rio Ferdinand, so he had to chose one. The FA should have stepped in and removed John Terry from selection until the trial had been completed. This is another reason why the trial should have taken place a long time ago. Because the FA didn't lead by example, Hodgson had to make a decision. He opted for Terry, which proved controversial. However, Terry has performed admirably and has been one of England's best players thus far at the tournament, completely justifying his selection.

The issue of racism needs to be dealt with one way or another. My proposed solutions are just my opinion and obviously can be debated and argued. Feel free to comment and let me know how you think this problem should be solved.

Didier Zokora literally kicking racism out of football -

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Another look at Irish football fans.

I'm sure you're all aware of the phenomenal support shown by the Irish supporters throughout the group stage of the 2012 European Championships in Poland and The Ukraine. It cannot be argued that the support was admirable, I just want to raise the question: Why isn't it always like this?

It was spine-tingling to hear 'The Fields of Athenry' being sang loudly and proudly in Poznan and Gdansk, despite being 3-1, 4-0 and 2-0 down at the time. The national anthem was also roared with such pride it had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up as a sat in my sitting room. The atmosphere from the stadium really did transfer through to myself and everyone at home - which is rare for a football match's atmosphere to be so clear when watching at home. The fans received a lot of press attention. The media jumped onto the support and Irish players often spoke of the brilliant atmosphere created by their fans. This glossed over a lot of on-field problems for the Irish, but I'm not going to discuss those problems (in this blog anyway, maybe another time.)

During the qualifying stage for the championships, the Irish support was poor. The attendances varied between 33'000 and 50'000. The one game that reached an attendance of 50'000 was the major game against Russia. This makes you wonder, who were the fans there for on that occasion? On more than one occasion there was only between 33'000 and 35'000 seats occupied in the 52'000 capacity stadium. This lack of supported was particularly highlighted during the Carling Nations Cup. The highest attendance seen for any of these games was 20'800 for the Republic of Ireland's clash with Wales. This is staggering when you consider that the domestic cup final attracted a crowd of 36'00 for a game between Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers. The League of Ireland is a very poorly supported league, yet the cup final still sold more tickets than a match in an international tournament that Ireland had a great chance of winning (which they did in the end.)

The Airtricity League of Ireland is an extremely poorly supported league. The title of 'Best fans in the world' that has been given to the Irish in recent days is extremely frustrating for this reason. If you were to visit any League of Ireland ground on a match day you will see that Irish fans are certainly not the best in the world. Far from it, in fact. My local team - Bray Wanderers would be happy to get 1'000 in the gate for a home game. Bray is a town of over 30'000 people, just outside Dublin. It is the only League of Ireland team in the county of Wicklow and is extremely accessible due to the road layout of the area. There is no excuse for attendances of this figure. It is shameful that in an area so passionate about sport and football in particular that attendances can be this low. It was not always like this for our domestic game, this is highlighted excellently in the book 'Who Stole Our Game? : The fall and fall of Irish soccer' by author Daire Whelan.

There is a huge following of the English football here in Ireland. I have nothing against this, I too support an English team but I also attend every game that my local team play. I do not support an English team at the expense of an Irish team. Sadly, many people do. If you were to visit Dublin airport in the early hours of a Saturday morning, you would find thousands of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Celtic jerseys. Thousands of supporters jetting off to see their favorite teams play. Unfortunately the support of the overseas leagues cannot be replicated in our own. I would imagine that more Irish fans visit their preferred English teams every weekend than many LOI teams get through their gates on a Friday evening. The league has attempted to tackle this problem. Everybody knows it cannot compete with the Barclays Premier League. The season runs from March to November, meaning the bulk of the season is played during the summer when the English teams are off on their holidays. Even for the time when the games overlap it isn't a problem because they are played on a Friday evening. What better way to end a week at work than to go and watch the football? The league has a bad reputation for having a poor standard of players and football in general. I do not necessarily agree with this belief. The likes of Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Stephen Ward, Keith Fahey and more recently Seamus Coleman and James McClean all left the league to go on to becoming full internationals. A year ago James McClean was playing for Derry City, most Irish fans had never heard of him. Suddenly, he moves to Sunderland and the whole country wants him in the national team. Did he become world class on the plane to England? I don't think so. Much of his development as a player came from playing on a regular basis for a team in a competitive league. As far as the quality of football goes, I couldn't disagree more with the thought that it is poor. Teams like Sligo Rover, St Patricks Athletic and even minnows UCD play some brilliant football and are thoroughly enjoyable to watch.

The lack of support for domestic teams has unfortunately been catastrophic. Too many teams have faced severe financial problems in the recent history of the league and many teams have ceased to exist. Dublin City, Sporting Fingal, Galway United, Cobh Ramblers and even Cork City have all come to an end in the last ten years. Luckily, Cork City have reformed under a new name and are now back in the league and Cobh Ramblers are in the lower leagues of Irish football trying to fight their way back up to the top two tiers.  The most fascinating case, for me anyway was Monaghan United. Recently promoted to the Premier Division, half way through the season Monaghan pulled out of the league. They simply could not afford to go on. This happened on the very day that Ireland played in the European Championships. This was extremely hard to take for all of us who follow the league. It is madness to think that while Irish fans are being praised as the best in the world, a team in their own country has to pull out of the league. I obviously understand that supporters cannot solely be held accountable for a teams financial problems, but, with more support comes more money. 

To conclude, yes the support of the national team in the three games of the European Championships has been nothing short of sensational. Irish fans however have no right to accept the label as 'The Best in the World' when their regular support of the national team is extremely questionable and they allow their domestic league to rot away as it has been left to do.