I can only recall one occasion where I was directly, racially abused at a football match. It was a pre-season friendly in East Germany and two incidents occurred in pretty close succession.
First, a group of Polish fans, who had travelled over the border for the game, refused to shake my hand. Second, once inside the ground amidst an extremely hostile atmosphere, a small group of Dresden ultras made monkey gestures towards me. Being fairly young (19-years-old) and naive, I remember reflecting on the coach back to our hotel how grateful I was that back in England, we had long since past the dark days of this kind of abhorrent behaviour.
Whether I was right or wrong back in 2012, over the last few years, racism in England and in English football has got worse. Hate crimes in our society have risen sharply, and unsurprisingly so have reports of discrimination at football matches.
The truth is, that as a black man, I have always felt a sense of discomfort at football. I love the sport so much that I have often tried to bury that feeling, but it is there.
There is an unease about being in such a predominantly white environment and being in such a small minority that isn’t representative of society. This feeling isn’t unique to football: a lack of representation is an issue that permeates all areas of life in the UK. However, the strange thing about football is that although I see very few black and brown faces in the crowd, we are so well represented on the pitch. That contrast does not sit well with me.
“I have walked out of two Premier League games – both time I vowed never to return, but ultimately came back.”
Personally, I have never been racially abused at a game in England (a privilege I probably owe to the fact that I am half white), but the use of racial slurs and epithets against opposition players and fans happens regularly. I have walked out of two Premier League games due to racist abuse directed at opposition players. Both times I spoke up and one of the incidents resulted in a violent confrontation. Both times I vowed never to return to football, but ultimately came back.
While I have always spoken up against the racism I have seen at games against black people, I have been complicit in my silence when it comes to the widespread anti-semetic chanting and vitriol that happens in games against Tottenham (and often at other games). I am honestly amazed that this was only really picked up by the media in 2012. It has been happening for as long as I have been going to football matches and until very recently was widespread and broadly accepted. I have also never reported any of these issues, out of fear of repercussions or being labelled a snitch. The prevailing attitude has always been that if you don’t want to hear offensive language, then don’t go to football matches – but when it comes to discriminatory language, this has to change.
Recent events, following the death of George Floyd, have brought the importance of these issues to the forefront of all our minds. I have had to confront the fact that the only community I am actively part of that hasn’t been vocally supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, is my football community. They are extremely critical of the movement as a whole. The conversations I have tried to have with them in recent weeks have been exhausting and upsetting: they simply do not believe that white privilege is real or that racism is a widespread problem in the UK.
Now of course, the views of these people do not reflect an entire club or an entire sport. However, there is an extremely uncomfortable truth. When I scroll through my WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, the people expressing the views I find so abhorrent are almost exclusively people that I know from football.
“Even if I am physically safe, do I want to go to a game and be in close proximity to people who I know to hold these views?”
Two weeks ago, self-labelled “football lads” caused widespread disorder and violence in the name of “protecting statues and monuments” – and much of the country was shocked to see the level of hate that exists here in the UK. I was not surprised at all. There were people in attendance who I regularly see at home and away games. As someone who has been vocal on this issue, is it safe for me to return to attending games, once crowds return to football? Even if I am physically safe, do I want to be in close proximity to people who I know to hold these views?
I have given football plenty of chances over the years and things have only got worse. While much of the world has woken up to the deep, systemic race issues that black people face all over the world, this awakening has pushed a corner of society ever further into bigotry.
It feels like a small risk for me to write this, and my ability to continue supporting the team I love, in person, may be compromised, but now more than ever is the time to speak up and have our voices heard.