Can the game ever change?
Amidst the annual mayhem of the summer transfer window this year, an Irish newspaper had made the honest, but nonetheless eye-wateringly embarrassing mistake of accompanying its headline transfer story with a picture of UK Grime MC Stormzy, igniting a dialogue about the game’s ever-prescent interaction with racism.
Lukaku has once again become the subject of cavalier racial insensitivity – one involving the imaginary proportions of his dick, no less. The Belgian striker’s adept finishing for his new club has earned him a chant among a minority of United fans that highlights both his goal-scoring ability and his presumed penis length. This prompted racism watchdog Kick It Out to ask the club if it could stop its fans from indulging in such blatant racial stereotyping, ‘irrespective of any intention to show support for a player’.
The usual counter-arguments that it’s ‘just banter’, or that it’s ‘a compliment’, have unsurprisingly been wheeled out. But the fact is that United’s failure to take action on its own accord underlmines a somewhat misplaced smugness in English football.
UK football likes to favourably compare itself to Russian football’s banana throwing, chanting monkey sounds or Serie A’s appalling treatment of Sully Muntari (who was red-carded after refusing to continue a match due to constant racist abuse from fans), and to be fair, attitudes in the game have palpably changed.
The FA correctly punished Luis Suarez after he used a racial epithet towards Patrice Evra in 2011 , and both clubs fully cooperated with the FA investigation following chants of ‘DVD’ and ‘ He’s selling three for a fiver’ at South Korean Son Heung-Min during Spurs Vs. Millwall last season.
Anti-racism is not just a message being conveyed from the authorities of English football either – today’s average premier league fan would vehemently reject generalisations that all football supporters are broadly racist. And it is unlikely that negative racist chanting (as opposed to ‘home side banter’) would be tolerated in any of the country’s top stadiums by security or fans alike.
English football has come a long way from the more vicious racism embedded in the game during the 1970s and 80s. However, it has not come so far that it is able to recognise comments about penis length as racial stereotyping without being prompted.
And whilst many will continue to argue that not all the people chanting it are necessarily racists – that the chant is being performed in a cordial, positive context, that ‘my black friend was there and he found it hilarious’ – others will rightly point to to it as an example of complacency surrounding racism in both English and global football.
Last year, FIFA quietly disbanded its anti-racism task force, declaring its mission accomplished. Apparently there is no longer any need for it. Although it’s not an organisation known for its ethical astuteness, this represented a faux pas even by its own lofty standards. Especially with the fast approaching 2018 World Cup in Russia that is almost certain to bring its fair share of racial provocations.
Worse still are the ongoing allegations of racial abuse brought by two female English national team players against England Women’s team coach Mark Sampson. Sampson protests his innocence, of course. But the whole saga reeks of numerous FA cover ups, and threatens to plunge English football into a new chapter of particularly ugly controversy – one stoked by its simultaneous reluctance to address deep-rooted misogyny.
Ignorance and hostility seeps into the game from the top and bottom. The problem with discrimination isn’t just seen on the pitch and in stadiums. Corruption from boardrooms and failures to competently punish abuse towards and from players seem part of the deal. It’s only when a player is high profile enough for people to care that apologies are issued.
Kick It Out has made great strides for British football. Lots of fans have applauded the organisation’s criticism of United’s phallic-filled chant, with progressives in football making tiny victories as their ideas are embraced more and more. Football, so often considered a breeding ground for racist sentiment, can actually bring about genuine change if wrongdoings are kept in check.
So while all the old adages apply to the Lukaku chant – that it is ‘only a minority’ of fans – and many football fans will be defending their beloved obsession from accusations of backwardness and bigotry, there has to be a line. And if the line is Romelu Lukaku’s penis, so be it.