Monday, 13 February 2012

The wound that just won't heel

The political response to the weekend's Suarez/Evra hand-jive has been dominated so far by Jeremy Hunt's claim that David Cameron does not want football to return to the "bad old days". This is an odd statement.

The bad old days, by which I take it he means the 1980s, were marked by a systemic disregard for racism by the footballing authorities and government. It took the launching of the Kick It Out campaign in 1993 by the CRE and the PFA to start to turn the tide. The FA and Premier League didn't fully get on board till 1997. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the government's attitude was dictated largely by hooliganism (seen as another manifestation of the "enemy within").

The bad old days were also dominated by crowd behaviour in the form of racist chants, banana lobbing, and making monkey noises (which I always found ironic as they made the perpetrator look like a grunting idiot). While there was plenty of racism on the pitch, this was usually a minor counterpoint to what was going on in the stands. The limits of TV and audio technology made it difficult for such acts to be picked up on.

So what does Cameron (or Hunt) mean by the bad old days?

Is he implying that the organised game has failed to address the problem? The demoting of John Terry indicates that the FA are certainly taking a robust stance on racism. The apologies from Liverpool FC may be prompted as much by a fear of tarnishing the brand as genuine contrition, but they're certainly nothing if not evidence that the EPL and clubs take the matter seriously.

I don't think he's implying that it's all kicking off in the stands either. The spate of racist verbal attacks by fans recently has been noticeable for their pathetic exceptionality, mainly lone nutters and opportunistic social media trolls. As Richard Williams points out, much of the noise around this incident isn't even driven by "genuine racism" so much as tribal anger. In other words, more people hate Patrice Evra for playing for Man Utd than for the colour of his skin, which is progress.

Williams also notes Sky Sports desire to invest every element of the game with significance, to the extent that the pre-match handshake has become an established warm-up bout. This is largely down to the pioneering work of John Terry, who seems to crop up a lot.

What this reminds me of is televised wrestling in the 70s, when mini epics of morality were acted out over 3 rounds by Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. Refusing to shake a proffered hand, and general abuse of the rules by the "heel", was part of the show. The old ladies and kids in the audience wanted Manichean contests of good versus evil, in the confident expectation that the handshake-refuser would end up begging for mercy.

Luis Suarez has begged for mercy now, but we all suspect he's not wholly sincere. His role as a heel has been maintained, though I'm not sure he's really cut out for it. What the game needs is a "top top" heel, along the lines of the great Kendo Nagasaki.

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