Sport

How did the beautiful game get so ugly?

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Racism, sexism and anti-Semitism are more widespread in football than ever. So what's to be done?

Beered-up English fans colonising a corner of Seville, chanting ‘No Surrender’ beneath a flag bearing the initials of the Football Lads Alliance, an Islamophobic, far-right group whose marches have been frequented by former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson.

A banana being thrown at a striker from Gabon after he scores a goal in the North London derby.

The best female player in Europe walking on stage to collect the first Women’s Ballon d’Or only to be asked by the male host, a French DJ, whether she can twerk.

A leading light in Gareth Southgate’s exciting young team – the star of a landmark win against Spain on that night in Seville – turning away in dismay after being racially abused by a group of screaming men near the touchline at Chelsea. Followers of that same club singing anti-Semitic songs at an away match in Hungary, despite Chelsea’s owner, who has bankrolled their recent success, being Jewish.

‘I could be describing the game I grew up with in the 1980s’

Why, someone asked me recently, is football so angry? It’s a difficult question to answer, particularly in the context of the myths being peddled by its new ruling class about the inclusive, progressive, thoroughly modern game they preside over. Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism – when cataloguing this depressing list of so-called ‘isolated events’ over the last few months, it struck me that I could be describing the game I grew up with throughout the 1980s.

There are differences, of course. These days the stadiums are better, more expensive to enter, and they host players from all corners of the globe. And it’s no longer oiks in their teens and early 20s broadcasting their ignorance (the young were largely priced out years ago), but grown adults with the sort of jobs and responsibilities, one imagines, that put them in a position to be able to afford the extortionately priced seats. And for those unable or unwilling to attend, social media now offers a platform for hatred and bile that’s far more pervasive than the small groups of shaven-headed men you used to see handing out leaflets for the National Front.

Hate crime is on the rise, flowing on fast-running tides of xenophobia that, many argue, have brought us to this moment of national crisis and schism. We are living in a time when extremism can result in a female MP being physically harassed for her anti-Brexit views on College Green in Westminster, or worse, being murdered on the street in broad daylight. The most recent Government statistics show that, in 2017/18, 94,098 hate crime offences were recorded by the police in England and Wales, an increase of 17 per cent compared with the previous year. The trend is mirrored across Europe and beyond, where its poster boy is in the White House, disseminating his bigotry on Twitter.

‘Football is angry because society is angry’

Why, then, should football be any different? The short answer is, it’s not. Kick It Out, which challenges discrimination and works to promote inclusion and positive change in football and the wider community, reported an 11 per cent year-on-year increase in reported cases of discriminatory abuse at matches in 2017/18, the sixth successive annual rise. In the same period, reports of discrimination in the grassroots game rose by 35 per cent.

John Barnes, one of the greatest English players of the last 30 years, endured racist abuse throughout his glittering career with Watford, Liverpool and England. An infamous photograph from 1988 shows him backheeling away a banana that was thrown at him from the stands at Goodison Park. Barnes, like many, believes that what we are seeing in football at the moment reflects instability and polarisation in the world at large: ‘In times of stress, like the period we’re living through in Britain today,’ he wrote recently, ‘people look for ways to communicate their superiority over others.’

Football is angry because society is angry. It was an angry place in the ’70s and ’80s thanks to mass unemployment and widespread cuts. Now, the rhetoric of inequality and prejudice is fuelling the ugliness that Ada Hegerberg, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Raheem Sterling, Kalidou Koulibaly and many others are sadly forced to suffer. It’s time for the game’s leaders to show some leadership. Until they do, we’ll have to rely on the superiority of the right kind of individuals, and whether they can make themselves heard in the crowd.