MARTIN SAMUEL on Raheem Sterling: How does football stop vile abuse?

Faces contorted in hate and fury, a front row of middle-aged adults screaming at a younger man with brutal abuse. This is football’s normal… how can it be stopped?

  • Raheem Sterling was abused by a group of Chelsea fans at Stamford Bridge
  • One man, we refer to him as Blue Top, is alleged to have yelled ‘f****** black c***’
  • An alternative theory is that the Man City star was called a ‘f****** Manc c***’
  • It is an indictment of the state of English football that the latter is considered OK

As the fall-out from football’s latest descent into the morass continued, a valid, yet problematic, point was made. What if he said Manc?

What if the word sandwiched between the expletives and directed at Raheem Sterling was not, as it appeared, black – but Manc? Looks quite similar, in lip reading terms. Easily mistaken by the layman. Without an eye witness, suppose the man in the blue top had been telling Sterling he was a ‘f****** Manc c***’, and had made no reference to the colour of his skin.

The conclusion seemed to be: then carry on. You can call a footballer a c***. You can call him a Manc c***. You just can’t bring race into it. Abuse is fine these days. Abuse is expected.

The Met Police confirmed they are investigating an incident of alleged racist abuse towards Raheem Sterling. The man alleged to have committed the offence is obscured in this picture

Multiple insults were hurled at Sterling, though only one, from the man circled, seemed racist

Sterling laughed at the vile abuse after a fan (circled) appeared to say ‘you f****** black c***’

Along the row from Blue Top were a line of middle-aged adults, their faces contorted in hate and fury, all screaming at a younger man – Sterling turned 24 on Saturday – for the crime of being good at football and wearing the wrong kind of blue shirt. There were gestures, and barely-controlled anger, and no doubt some pretty horrible language. Yet those fans are not in trouble. They can be at Chelsea’s next game, and every game after that, because threatening, irrational behaviour of the kind that would get an individual arrested in the street, is permitted in football grounds. 

Violent language is to be expected. The worst oaths and insults are all part of the banter, part of the fun; and any footballer that made a complaint having been repeatedly sworn at would be told to man up, grow a pair, and probably have his weekly salary used as justification for the act.

‘Footballers earn vast amounts of money, they have little love for their clubs and fans, come across as arrogant and aloof and you don’t think there will be a reaction?’ read one comment on this newspaper’s website on Saturday. As if that makes Sterling, or any footballer, fair game. It has been forgotten that a salary is reward, not compensation; and that the price of admission gives the right to watch a football match, not to behave in a manner beyond the boundaries of civilised society.

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Racist abuse, common abuse, there is no justification for what Sterling had to endure at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. The background noise as he went to take a corner is representative of the worst elements of British society in 2018: brutal, boorish, entitled, foul.

Why did that front row think they had the right to act in this way? Because they could. We have not stopped the coarsening of interaction between fans and footballers across many decades, and now what should be unacceptable is the norm.

Had the man in the Blue Top not appeared to utter the word ‘black’ between his curses, and had that not been picked up on social media, this would have been just another day at the office for Sterling – or any footballer, black or white, male or female.

Richard Scudamore, outgoing chief of the Premier League knew the reality some time ago. ‘It is quite perverse,’ he told me in 2012. ‘We have created safe environments, welcoming, liberal environments where, frankly, people are allowed to behave badly.’ He was right. The line in the sand was drawn at racial abuse, not abuse. Abuse is bantz, abuse is a GIF, a clip to be shared, pressure to be released.

Sterling played the full 90 minutes as City lost 2-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday

A football ground is a place people go to let off steam, remember – and we hear that glib logic so often now we no longer appreciate how strange it sounds. Let off steam why? Let off steam at whose expense? What happened to just watching the football, and letting off steam that way? What happened to being defined by what you love, not who you hate?

Chelsea come out to an old ska tune, The Liquidator by Harry J’s All Stars. Before they chant the name of their own club, the home support add a strong negative. ‘We hate Tottenham – Chelsea!’ Tottenham get first billing – or the hatred for them does. And this is the new normal, the new typical, so it really is no surprise when common abuse turns into racist abuse, or sexist abuse, so that women footballers open their social media accounts to discover a timeline of rape threats. For kicking a ball.

And that becomes a big story and another scandal – but the greatest scandal is not attempting to shut this off at the source. If all abuse is considered unpalatable than racist or sexist abuse goes in the waste with it. Yet while some abuse is regarded as tolerable, the small step to the darkest places will always occur. If Sterling can be called a ‘Manc c***’ there is always going to be person who is inspired by that, and prepared to take it further.

Rightly, what was inflicted on Sterling at Stamford Bridge has created a wider debate. Rio Ferdinand raised the prospect of a protest similar to the Black Lives Matter kneeling stance, taken by Colin Kaepernick in the NFL. Yet unless this involves all footballers and covers all forms of strong abuse – nobody is trying to sanitise football, by the way, to remove simple dissatisfaction or terrace humour – the gateway to some pretty despicable words remains open. Abuse is the thin end of the wedge, racial abuse the thick: much like those who perpetrate it.

Pundit and former Manchester United captain Rio Ferdinand expressed his disgust online

If we merely see abuse as an occupational hazard for footballers, we end up like the Chelsea steward who can be seen smiling at the torrents of invective raining down on Sterling from the sidelines. The steward is black, by the way, as are several members of the crowd within earshot. None seem greatly outraged.

Ian Wright fears the culture that stained football in the 70s and 80s is back, but thankfully that cannot be quite true when we are still able to identify individual culprits. Racist behaviour is so exceptional these days that the offenders end up on the front pages of newspapers. By contrast, players such as Chelsea’s Paul Canoville endured congregations of hundreds – often his own fans – hurling bananas as well as racial epithets, and in some parts of Europe monkey chants from entire sections of the crowd can still be heard.

But let’s not flatter ourselves. There are plenty of racists out there who simply know how to avoid arrest. Their thoughts haven’t changed, just their actions in public. Yet football cannot efficiently address that. Chelsea, and all football clubs, can preach zero tolerance, but they cannot guarantee zero racism, or zero offence. What can be done, however, is that we stop regarding our stadiums as safe spaces for verbal brutality.

The law will deal with Blue Top, if it can. Yet what of the rest of them? It is no coincidence that an entire row felt it had the right to abuse Sterling. If this is football’s new normal, where or how can it ever end?

Ian Wright tweeted: ‘The bad old days are back’ and ‘absolutely no doubt about what he says’

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