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Football is back – but what next in the never-ending fight against racism?

Samuel Lovett

So, what’s changed?

In the latest chapter in football’s never-ending fight against racism, last season marked a frightening step backwards as one incident after another sent shivers down the spine of the English game. A banana skin on the pitch at the Emirates. That night at Stamford Bridge. Abandoned grassroots matches. Walk-offs. Monkey chants. Islamophobia. Twitter posts laced with hate and abuse. “It’s coming back,” Paul Canoville, Chelsea’s first black player, told The Independent last year. “It’s creeping back into the game.” Against the backdrop of an increasingly polarised society, football felt like it had caught fire.

Those at the bottom of the pyramid will say it’s always been this way, that their weekly run-outs continue to be marred by racist abuse and discrimination on a regular basis – with little desire to acknowledge, confront and tackle these issues.

“Nothing gets done,” says Linford Harris, a non-league player who, along with his FC Wymeswold teammates, walked off during an amateur cup final after being racially abused. Despite witnesses coming forward, his case was dropped by local police while Harris and his club were sanctioned. At this level of the game – away from the spotlight of the mainstream – the appetite for change can feel hollow.

But while cases such as Harris’ flew under the radar last season, the frequency of incidents on the Premier League and international stage made it impossible for football to look the other way. “The topic of racism as such wasn’t really on anyone’s agenda until late November, December last year,” says Troy Townsend, head of development at Kick It Out. “Then all of a sudden there was a catalogue of incidents and because they were so high profile … everyone stands up and takes note.”

What followed was the beginning of a conversation that sought to reframe the way in which we view racism in the game. In many ways, it was one driven by the footballers themselves, by those individuals who are regularly subjected to corrosive abuse, micro-prejudices and unconscious basis.

After years of inertia from the authorities, in dealing with incidents and effectively tackling racism, the players sought to seize control of the narrative. “The reason why the players are doing it now [speaking out] is because enough is enough,” says Townsend. “It’s because they don’t see the right action, they don’t see the right sanctions. The act of abuse is continuing to happen. Now I think it’s a case they want to take matters, to an extent, into their own hands.”

Under a prevailing climate of racial tension, and driven by desperate necessity, English football immersed itself, however briefly, into a shallow pool of introspection. What were the authorities doing to fight racism? How could they purge the sport of this “disease”? Are the existing sanctions harsh enough, effective enough?

Questions were similarly asked of the media too. After being racially abused at Stamford Bridge, Raheem Sterling accused certain corners of the media of ‘fuelling racism’ through the stories we write, the language we use when describing black and white players, our willingness to turn a blind eye to those passing comments made out of sight from the public. Journalists came to reflect on how we’ve compounded, rather than challenged, football’s racist undertones. “I’ve probably thought about this more in the past 24 hours than I ever have done,” Gary Neville admitted on Monday Night Football as he addressed Sterling’s words.

So, what’s changed since? What lessons have been learnt? How does English football ensure that the succession of events seen last season won’t be repeated in the weeks, months and years ahead?

The authorities argue there’s renewed intent and focus to tackle the issue. Last week, Paul Elliot, chairman of the FA’s inclusion advisory board, said that the organisation “has to modernise” itself to be “fit for purpose for the 21st century”. It was an admission that points to the FA’s shortcomings but came with the promise that genuine change can be achieved.

The issue of handling reports of racism is one such area which needs drastically addressing. In many cases, a victim can wait months on end to hear an outcome. In some instances, there may be no end result – with the case being dropped due to a lack of evidence. Or, as with Linford Harris and FC Wymeswold, the findings of an investigation can be almost comical in nature. Is it any wonder that some within the game won’t bother reporting incidents on account of the response they get?

“When you’ve been victimised and report it and have to wait six months for an outcome, sometimes longer, or sometimes a case fizzles out – how does that make you believe that the system you’re reporting to is fit for purpose?” asks Townsend.

Kick It Out found that last season the FA had failed to inform the organisation of the outcome in 79 per cent of the 109 cases reported at the grassroots level. Although the FA insists that all cases of discrimination are communicated “once they have been concluded and processes,” officials know this is one aspect that needs improving.

“Make no mistake, it’s high on our agenda,” Elliot tells The Independent. “We know that the reporting process needs to be more time efficient, and we continue to invest in this process to make it smoother and more effective. We’re also in regular contact with our 50 County FAs to provide support, understand each incident and identify any hot spot areas for incidents.”

The matter of reporting racism in the first place is another area being targeted. A Hope not Hate survey revealed that half of all UK football fans that responded had witnessed racist abuse; however, less than half were aware of how to report it. Kick It Out’s dedicated app allows incidents on the pitch or in the stands to be quickly reported but the Premier League, in a letter written alongside the FA and English Football League to the Government, has promised to “improve the flow of incident reporting, ensuring a robust and simple reporting system is provided which fans can use quickly and simply”. With details short on what exactly this will entail, only time will tell what these changes bring.

In the same letter, plans have also been set out to improve the identification and handling of discriminatory behaviour within stadiums. This will see higher-quality CCTV installed, the introduction of body-worn cameras for stewards and co-ordinating resources more closely with match-day policing.

Millwall is already looking to take on board such procedures, with the club set to deploy undercover staff to monitor and gather evidence on discrimination in the stands. Stewards with body cameras will also be deployed. This come as part of a 12-step action plan adopted by the club after fans were found guilty of racist chants during an FA Cup match against Everton earlier this year.

Paul Canoville wants to see stadium bans introduced to English football as a means to punish racist fans (Rex Features)

On the issue of sanctions – whether to fine, suspend, how long to ban an offending fan or player for – the FA is reviewing current guidelines with a view to introducing more consistent and effective punishments, mandatory education for offenders and action plans, as seen with Millwall.

But many within the game want more than this. Earlier this year, Sterling called for the implementation of points deductions to combat racism. “If you know your team is going to get deducted nine points and not win the league, you are not going to say these racist remarks even though you shouldn’t have it in your head,” he said. Although the Premier League “welcomed the opportunity” to speak with Sterling on such matters, it’s unclear whether any genuine consideration has been given to this particular sanction.

Canoville has adopted a similarly hardline approach. “How I see it, you ban the club,” he tells The Independent. “You ban all the fans from coming in and seeing the game. Racism at the ground? The punishment should be to ban all the fans for a particular game. I don’t care how dead the game will be without the fans. Now let’s see what you’re going to do to step up. Let’s see now how the fans are going to adjust. Will they step up?”

Townsend doesn’t go as far but wants uniformity across the board, particularly with match bans. “The whole game is not together,” he says. “Uefa and Fifa are now up to 10 match bans for racism. We decide we’re at six. Can we not just collaborate and say it’s 10 right across the board? It sends a strong message out, it shows that football is working closer together.” According to Elliot, the FA is “reviewing what the minimum match-based suspension for proven cases of discrimination should be” – but at this stage it can feel as if sanctions alone aren’t enough, such is the endless flow of racism within the game.

This sense of futility is particularly acute in the digital realm. A fairly recent phenomenon, social media remains the most pressing issue to which football currently has no answer. The racism Tammy Abraham was subject to last week barely scratches the surface, with players and fans across the game exposed to vile online abuse on a weekly basis. The language of hate may not fill football’s stands like it used to, but it can often feel as if it’s simply migrated to those platforms where anonymity can help protect the racists while leaving their victims helpless.

The Chelsea forward was last week subject to online racist abuse after missing a penalty in the Super Cup final (Getty)

“I talk to players who are getting DMs on a regular basis, who say ‘Thanks for your support Troy. but this is never going to stop’. So they’re aware that there’s not much you can do. If the social media companies don’t stand up then there’s not much you can do,” says Townsend. The FA, EFL and Premier League have all asked the Government for support in getting social media providers to take this issue seriously. But while conversations with Downing Street were said to be fruitful earlier this year – one Premier League figure said “we’re pushing an open door” – the change in government over the summer has left football’s authorities unsure of what comes next on this front, with the Brexit blackhole draining Whitehall of its focus and resources.

In the face of such challenges, it’s hard not to despair. But without any sense of hope, the fight will always remain a losing one. “I wouldn’t be working in the game if there wasn’t optimism,” says Townsend. Much has been made of the fumes of societal division fanning hate within the game, but Townsend is keen to point to the “power” of football in eliciting change away from the pitch and beyond the stadium.

“We’re battling against a tide – but the power and influence of this game could definitely transcend that and help in many ways,” he explains. He points to the community work rolled out by clubs, the Kickz initiative, Premier League Stars, the ability of the players to challenge and change antiquated perceptions. Indeed, a recent study from Stanford University found that anti-Muslim hate crimes had dropped by 18.9 per cent in Liverpool since Mohamed Salah moved to Anfield, while Islamophobic tweets from the club’s fans halved compared with other teams. “This game can be so strong in driving positive influence into wider society,” Townsend adds.

There’s clearly a long way to go. The FA, the Premier League, EFL and Government have much work to do in streamlining or replacing those structures, sanctions and practices that, for too long, have done little in purging racism from the game. Those within the footballing bubble – the players, coaches, club staff, the media – must also continue to ask questions of themselves, to front up, acknowledge and confront the various forms that racism can take: the physical, visible act, the pernicious, silent bias, the subtle linguistic differences. In the meantime, our best hope is holding onto hope itself, in drawing the good that exists within the game, in embracing it, holding it up to the light and showing what football is capable of in the right hands.