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12.23.11

How Two Incidents of Alleged Racism in English Soccer Have Shocked the Sport

Two incidents of alleged racism by top players in English soccer have shocked a sport that sells itself to a huge—and multicultural—global audience.

One case, no matter how serious, might be dismissed as an aberration, but the news this week that both of the instances of alleged racial abuse that have been hanging over English soccer have been found to have substance suggests that one of its long-banished specters is making a return. Even worse, one of the alleged culprits is John Terry, the captain of the English national team. The other is a Uruguayan goal-scorer named Luis Suárez, the star of Liverpool, perhaps the most storied team in England.

Racism in soccer was a feature of the bad old days of the ’70s and ’80s, when gangs of rival fans fought running battles in run-down stadia, and a photograph of the brilliant Liverpool and England footballer John Barnes, who is black, back-heeling a banana into the crowd with a typically deft and fluid motion seemed to symbolize all that was bad about English society and English soccer. 

Things got worse before they got better: a fire at Bradford City’s aging Valley Parade stadium in 1985 claimed 56 lives, and in 1989, 96 Liverpool fans were killed in a terrible crush at a match in Sheffield. English soccer had, it seemed, sunk as low as it could. Inquiries into the disasters called for wholesale reconstruction of England’s football grounds: standing-only sections, known as terraces, were replaced by seating that calmed the crowds (and priced some people out); more sophisticated policing of the hooligans was introduced; and a family-friendly game-day feel was created. 

Revival on the pitch soon followed. English clubs had been banned from competing against other European teams in the continent’s most prestigious tournaments since Liverpool’s supporters had inadvertently caused the death of 39 fans of the Turin team, Juventus, at the 1985 European club final, and both club sides and the national team had stagnated in isolation. The progress of the England national team, inspired by the erratic, heart-breaking talent of a player named Paul Gascoigne, to the semi-final of the World Cup in Italy in 1990 provided a reminder of the allure of the game. The rebranding of the old top tier of clubs as a new-look elite competition called Premier League, and the first in a series of massive TV deals with Sky, Rupert Murdoch’s satellite network, completed the renaissance. During the 1990s, players’ wages soared to levels that would have been unthinkable to the previous generation, and a multinational and multiracial cast of players, managers, and owners was drawn to the cosmopolitan world of the Premier League. Racism had no place in this new, improved version of the English game, whose global appeal is huge. Twenty million people outside the U.S. watched the Super Bowl, America’s most watched sporting event, while the global audience for any number of regular games between English teams can reach 500 million.

Non-British businessmen have taken note, including many Americans. Americans now own famous teams like Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Aston Villa. An Indian company owns Blackburn Rovers. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich owns Chelsea. A sheik from Abu Dhabi owns Manchester City. English soccer could hardly be more international. Racism in that context seems positively Victorian.

But on Tuesday, the governing body of English soccer, the Football Association, found Suárez guilty of abusing the Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, who is black, during a game in October. Suárez has been banned for eight games. This will not please the club’s new American owners, the Fenway Sports Group (owners of the Boston Red Sox), although they have come out strongly in his defense. Suárez has said that the word he used has no racist connotations in his native Uruguay, and Liverpool appear to believe him: “It is our strong belief, having gone over the facts of the case, that Luis Suárez did not commit any racist act,” the club said in a statement released after his punishment was made public. His fellow players signaled their support by donning Suárez T-shirts for the warm-up before Wednesday’s game at Wigan. The team’s manager, Kenny Dalglish, who is venerated as one of the club’s greatest players and most successful managers, also feels very strongly that his player has been unfairly treated.

The other case in the headlines seems more serious: the Suárez affair might just be attributed to cultural or linguistic misunderstandings, but the England captain John Terry can hardly claim the same defense. Queen Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand, who is black, complained after a game on Oct. 23 that Terry, who plays for Chelsea, had racially abused him. A much-watched YouTube clip of Terry apparently mouthing racist abuse has made it hard for Terry to claim innocence in the court of public opinion.

“It is our strong belief, having gone over the facts of the case, that Luis Suárez did not commit any racist act,” Liverpool said in a statement.

Terry has another, rather awkward situation to deal with.

He frequently plays alongside Ferdinand’s elder brother, Río, in the England national team. Unlike Suárez, Terry faces more than an inquiry run by the governing body of the sport; this week British prosecutors announced they plan to prosecute Terry for the alleged racial abuse. He is due to appear in court in London, Feb. 1.

No one knows why two such high profile cases of racism should have occurred simultaneously. English football—and the English media, which covers the game in minute detail—professes itself baffled and horrified. Terry has said that he will fight “tooth and nail” to prove his innocence, but if he fails, it will not only be his reputation that suffers, but the reputation of the supposedly remodeled version of English football.