Recently, I boarded a late-night bus in Jerusalem. Unbeknown to me, all of my fellow passengers were 'ultras' of a team called Beitar Jerusalem. In short, they epitomised the very worst of Israeli football. As we drove past Arabs walking in the street, they all chanted 'Ben Zoma' (son of a whore) in unison. This is hardly an isolated incident. These are the very fans who firebombed their own stadium when they signed two Muslim players. Yet they are the exception in a largely inclusive Israeli football. Clubs like Hapoel and Maccabi spearhead efforts to promote Arab-Israeli unity. Now players like Biram Kayal and Abbas Suan regularly appear in the Israeli team. And everyone is inspired to do more, ashamed and astonished by the antics of Beitar.
Israel's experience shows the two sides of how sport, and in particular football, can tackle racism. I believe there has been a two pronged-approach, which I would term 'integration by inclusion' and 'integration by reflection'. The first is relatively obvious. Team sports emphasise the unity of a team, a team selected on merit, regardless of race, colour or creed. For my team, Celtic, that means that Hondurans team-up with Nigerians, and Jews play with Muslims.
Football has this ability, more so than any other sport, as it is simple to learn, inexpensive to play, and loved across so many borders. As such, it can teach its fans (and its players) the values of mutual respect and tolerance. When your young heroes are so diverse, it is bound to stutter racism. Even more importantly, when your 'different' neighbour shares your core passion, it really helps to break down cultural barriers. This impact is weaved into the narrative of the Jewish Museum's Four-Four-Jew exhibition. It depicts a people struggling to integrate into Britain, but a shared love of the national game accelerated that process.
Integration can also come by reflection. What do I mean by this? Well with a sport so well-loved, any nefarious incidents attract nationwide coverage. It puts a mirror up to society and asks us if we really find this acceptable. Twenty-five years ago, I believe football underwent this process with regards to black players. An unacceptable song sung on the street, on a random Saturday night will not attract anywhere near the same amount of publicity as the same song sung at a high-profile match. There are still isolated incidents, sadly, but the strives made forward came via society realising that measures needed to be taken.
In the face of these previous challenges in England and the present challenges in Israel, comes the Hodgson furore. Much has been said on why it wasn't racist (it wasn't) and the attempted defacing of one of the game's nice guys has been ridiculous. It's time we concentrate on the positive power that football has for racial integration in a society, rather than thinking there has been another incident worthy of 'reflection'. That is not to say these will not occur, and John Terry's argument with Anton Ferdinand may well be an example of this, but Hodgson was not. The British game does a lot of good in this regard, it should not be tarnished by non-events. Sadly, such praise cannot go to many European clubs.
Yet for all the good that it does, there is still institutionalised discrimination prevalent in the game. Not racisim but homophobia. Statistics suggest it is nearly impossible that not one top flight player is gay. What is it that makes football so inhospitable to the gay members of our community? With the next two World Cup's, after Brazil, being in Qatar and Russia, any efforts for progress on this front are effectively undermined. What would we say if a country had an institutionalised racism towards the black community and won the right to host the World Cup? These problems are not 'either-or', in terms of where our efforts should lie and there is certainly more that can be done in with regard to racism in the UK, but the context of the Israeli and gay experience show that progress has been made.
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