You can’t kick racism out of football

The “Racism” debate has sprung up again, this time in wake of how a section of traveling Newcastle fans abused Middlesbrough’s Ahmed Mido with racist chants. Seeing the quality of the slurs, I have to say the fans must have been drunk beyond hope, but despite the lack of apparent talent it just raises another issue that we have been unable to face up to as football fans.

You cannot kick racism out of football. It doesn’t work that way.

Football and racism are both integral parts of our society and you cannot separate one from the other without tackling the root causes of the problem – that the extremely competitive environment of football coupled with racial differences in a multi-ethnic setting will ALWAYS cause matters to come to a boiling point where racism is often the last step before physical violence takes over.

The competitive spirit in football is such that reasonable, rational people become increasingly irrational and unreasonable with others simply on the basis of identification with a certain club. To put it into perspective, several good friends of mine are not Manchester United fans, but when it comes to arguing about football the emotions always reach a stage where, if you were to let them take over completely, you would value the association with your club over friendship and resort to whatever means necessary (verbal abuse or physical violence, albeit only in extreme conditions) to make your point.

And if we do that with friends, what about strangers?

It has to be said and emphasized that most football banter – whether between fans outside the stadium or through chants in the stands – is good-natured ribbing and while competitive, is non-violent, non-racist and designed to be funny rather than insulting.

However, whenever competition reaches a fever pitch, the good-natured ribbing quickly turns into racism and violence.

Why do you think incidents of fan violence are more common in matches between clubs from different countries than between two clubs from the same country? Familiarity breeds patience, and therefore you are never going to see two sets of fans behave in the Premier League the way they did at Roma, at Sevilla or at Athens. It just won’t happen, because when you are dealing with people and settings you are more familiar with, it’s easier to keep extreme emotions and actions in check.

So what is the final solution? I’m afraid there’s no other answer but to make grass-root societal changes which promote cooperation instead of competition off-the-pitch between opposing fans. No one wants to see traditional rivalries go away or competition to be less fierce, but through promoting cooperation and making fans see each other as members of the same greater community rather than enemies, we can reduce a whole range of problems related to extreme emotions evoked by football.

You can’t kick racism out of football – people will always be prejudiced, whether they carry their prejudice on their sleeves or deep inside them. What you can do is manage the extreme emotions that competition brings around, and channel them into cooperation so that the next time

In England, it has already happened for certain ethnicities, and I’m sure that in time it will happen for everyone else as well. But it needs to be a concentrated effort, not just in England but elsewhere in Europe and around the world as well.

And it starts with consciously separating the sphere of competition from the sphere of cooperation, especially for the people who are most affected by football – the fans.

Comments are most welcome.

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