The game is beautiful yes, but its surroundings are getting uglier. It’s not about the shiny new stadiums or 24/7 coverage. All of this is brilliant and gives clubs, fans and governing bodies the kind of setting that’s needed for the age we are in.
However, alongside the sheen and gloss, there is a dark and festering reality emerging from several corners of the football world that presents not only a substantial threat to the game, but also a dangerous path into even more worrying issues.
From within the confines of the footballing family, racism and its various manifestations has begun to take on more and more of a significant presence in the coverage and profile of football. Although clearly not a new problem, the dynamics at work within the modern-day variants of racism as applied to football present structural, regulatory and consumer-based processes on a scale that suggests the issue could become beyond management in the not too distant future.
Taking each level in turn, there are worrying factors at play on the surface and even more concerning related narratives lurking beneath the surface level of what we are seeing on a regular basis within the game.
At the structural level (social and political) changes in the way we communicate, engage with ideas and express our personal feelings has become one all-consuming ‘echo chamber’ for racist narratives and their supporters.
The basic idea of an echo chamber is a place (often virtual) where people come into contact with others that hold views and beliefs that match their own, thus reinforcing and perpetuating existing perception and attitudes.
With the rise of populism and dis-information alongside the power of social media, racism has found a new home within mainstream norms and values. Narratives are now ultra-globalised, yet subtle enough to take root at local level.
This odd mix gives voice to personal grievances and misconceptions while simultaneously offering ready-made extremist idea to house them in. Extremism therefore, is no longer the underground fringe issue that it once was.
It is front and centre, with football being the easy target for the venting of ideas that seek to undermine diversity and tolerance at their core. The net result for football is now a game that is fun to watch but fraught with social-political discourses popping up when least needed.
In Serie A for example, this has become a regular issue and one that the Italian league has no consistent or thought out approach with which to offer a counter response.
The recent events during England’s game with Bulgaria brought home the stark contrast in the personal, public and political contexts of racism and its differing effects at each level.
Each level offers a different set of factors that have no precedent or perspective on which to lean on. If players walk off the pitch, they are the enemy, if fines are levied, they are weak or ineffective and if there are angry reactions, these are seen as violations of the spirit of the game.
From a regulatory context the issue is mired in denial on one hand and powder puff actions on the other. The historical relationship between football and society has been one of smoke and mirrors. The smoke is in the form of football being a tool for allowing post-modern society to balance out tribal affiliation needs with the pressure of life, work and survival.
The release that football provides serves as the balm for the pain of everyday existence, a feeling of community and the expression of emotion in an organised and relatively contained manner. The mirror is a different beast entirely.
It reflects the underbelly of the human condition, the fear and mistrust of the other and at worst offers the easiest route to formulating, spreading and protecting harmful ideas.
When combined, football becomes a parody of the society in which it plays out. This is where the role of regulatory bodies becomes a double-edged sword.
For every racist they ban, hundreds more are ready to step in. For every match behind closed doors, social media becomes the new pitch onto which hatred and stereotypes are reinforced.
Football’s governing bodies must set an example to fear mongers and take firm, decisive and swift action. They must pander to the cause of the greater good, not offer the route of fines and sanctions that deep down come across as token gestures. Racism thrives when good people and social institutions do nothing or do only that which scratches a surface boiling over underneath.
The consumer (fans) angle is the most complex of the three. The reason is simple; fans are both the perpetrator and victim in this vicious game. When does the responsibility of social institutions stop and the role of rich club owners and associations start?
How many ‘spotters’ can UEFA have at each game. Should all fans not be spotters? How long before the racists employ the same tactics? What is the role education, engagement, critical thinking and emotional intelligence in ‘creating’ better fans?
Who is ultimately responsible for it all? Can the tech sector, governments, Football Associations and clubs come together to work in a strategic partnership fashion to put tools and process in place to stamp out this plague or at least make a very undesirable option?
In other related areas, censorship and legal actions have not thwarted the rise of fringe extremist movements from gaining traction. Too often, clubs have pushed these issues to the diversity section of their back offices. This has to stop.
Football has to make anti-racism and alike part of its core business. The game needs specialist expertise to help, skills and capacity building style change to equip clubs, players and fans with access to knowledge, support structures and effective measure to punish racists.
Football’s dance with racism needs to become a battle cry and a long-term effort to drive to the heart of the problems that of course social ills, but are more than at home in the stands and on social media. AS Roma in Italy have been brave and bold on this issue. The rest must get on the train fast.