The British prime minister has denounced the racist abuse at the England game against Montenegro on Monday as “disgusting and completely unacceptable”. The FA described it as “abhorrent racist chanting”.
The denunciations come after racist chants were directed at several England players during the game, leading Uefa to charge Montenegro for racist behaviour during the Euro 2020 qualifier.
The abuse, directed at stars including Raheem Sterling, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Danny Rose, included monkey chants. Afterwards, Sterling – who has spoken out against racism and the tabloid press – wrote on Twitter: “Best way to silence the haters (yeah I mean racists)”, with a picture of him celebrating a goal, and the ‘hear-no-evil’ monkey emoji.
The abuse has, rightly, caused outrage. Sterling suggested that supporters should be banned from football matches. Speaking to the BBC, he said: “I think there should be a real [...] collective punishment for this. [...] When that ban is lifted, your fans will think twice to do anything silly like that.”
But to black football fans, the latest outrage reveals something more chronic. Many of them think racism will remain a permanent fixture in football.
Speaking to HuffPost UK, some said that racism too quickly disappears from the headlines. Shani Robinson, a 28-year-old Chelsea supporter, compared the issue to knife crime. “When non-black kids get stabbed, the issue was splashed all over the media. That isn’t the case for black people; problems only get serious and lasting attention when white people are affected.”
A keen Sunday League footballer himself, Robinson has experienced prejudice directly. In a match in 2007, he says a white player called him a “black bastard” following an on-pitch scuffle, which resulted in a physical fight. “Every time something racist happens, it’s nothing new,” he said.
You cannot prevent it, really; it is inevitable. We are living in a racist societyShani Robinson
But Robinson thinks Sterling’s idea to ban supporters from stadiums won’t work. “If you stop certain racist fans coming, then others will simply take their place. If enough people are banned then stadiums won’t profit as much, and then the sport eventually suffers – that will not be allowed to happen in a million years.”
He has a dismal view of stamping out racism in the terraces. “It might start to die out with the older generation, in many years to come, but ‘tackling racism’ is like tackling getting a cold when you’re standing outside in the wind and rain. You cannot prevent it, really; it is inevitable. We are living in a racist society.”
For 63-year-old Ernie Harriott, an avid Manchester United fan who also enjoyed an amateur football career back in the late 1960s and 1970s, it is the concept of ‘black talent’ on the pitch that needs to be legitimised.
“Back then, it was a known fact that when we [black players] went to play, that a fight was going to happen because there weren’t any leading professional teams of which black people were a part. So they picked on us because we were the other.
“White supporters [of the opposing team] would be on the sidelines calling us all kinds of names - ‘sambo’, ‘gollywog’, ‘coon’, you name it.
“As black players, we just became used to it and became motivated, even more, to beat them on the pitch – and if they wanted a punch up afterwards then we’d have that as well.”
Harriott said that all-black football teams emerged later, such as Learie Constantine FC (named after famed West Indian cricketeer) and Continental, paving the way for black community teams.
“Those teams helped to legitimise the concept of black talent on the pitch. As far as racism in the sport, the only thing that’s changed since back in the day is it is more underground now where, back then, it was blatant.”
The north Londoner said the Football Association and the media have “a lot to answer” for “stoking racism in football”. “Racism isn’t going anywhere, any time soon. When I hear about the frequent incidents of racism in football, particularly in the UK, I just think ‘here we go again’. What’s new?”
This isn’t the first time racism in football has been at the forefront of the news. In December, during Manchester City’s defeat against Chelsea, TV footage appeared to show at least one Chelsea fan directing racist language towards Sterling in the match at Stamford Bridge. The club suspended four supporters following the incident, pending further investigation.
Sterling took to social media and criticised parts of the media for “fuelling” racism against black players. The striker’s criticism – which included two screenshots of online Daily Mail stories – won support on social media from players and pundits, including Gary Lineker, Ian Wright and Stan Collymore.
“For all the newspapers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age, all I have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity and give all players an equal chance,” Sterling wrote.
The year before, in December 2017, the player was attacked outside a Manchester City training ground by a man who used racist language against him. The man was subsequently charged with racially aggravated common assault and sentenced to 16 weeks in prison and a £100 fine.
Figures released by anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out last year revealed an 11% increase in reports of discriminatory abuse within football between 2017-18; the sixth successive annual rise. Of the 520 reported incidents, 53% were racism related – a 22% increase from the previous season.
Ricardo Douglas, who lives in Telford, Shropshire was a keen footballer himself – and trialed at a local club in 2014. He described feeling ostracised from the moment that he stepped onto the pitch; both from the manager and team-mates, where he was the only black player. The trial was unsuccessful.
Reacting to the Montenegro incident on Monday, Douglas said “it is really bad and embarrassing that these stuff are still happening in 2019”.
“Putting myself in people like Rose and Sterling’s shoes, it feels hurtful and weird, watching the abuse that they have to put up with because it should not be happening.
“I know that people respond to discrimination in different ways but I imagine it must be horrible for them and I do empathise as a black man.”
Douglas described the racist chants and on-field abuse as a “way of fans reminding black players of their place in society – one which obviously has not developed as much as people would think”.
“I really feel like the FA need to do more to address things and think that banning racist fans from stadiums would definitely be a good start; they should be identified and rooted out,” he added.
“Racism should not have a place in football.”