Last Monday Fifa’s The Best football awards were held at La Scala opera house in Milan. It was, as usual, an excruciating affair, full of turgid speeches and embarrassing links by the presenters. But amid this face-reddening fanfare the president of Fifa, Gianni Infantino, appealed to the audience of football celebrities on a serious matter. He noted that there had been another episode of racism in Italian football at the weekend and declared: “We have to say no to racism in whatever form.”
A short while later, Megan Rapinoe, winner of the women’s player of the year award, ribbed Infantino for stealing her thunder because she wanted to be the person to address these issues. Then she name-checked “Raheem Sterling and [Kalidou] Koulibaly” for taking on racism. “If we really want to have meaningful change,” she told the gathered stars, “then what I feel would be most inspiring would be if everybody other than Raheem Sterling and Koulibaly [was] as outraged about racism as they are.”
Both were noble sentiments, but what do they actually mean? Almost as if to test that question, Conguitos‑gate was unfolding. Last Sunday Sterling’s Manchester City teammate Bernardo Silva, the eloquent Portuguese midfielder, tweeted a photograph of another teammate, Benjamin Mendy, as a young child next to the cartoon that is the marketing symbol for the Spanish chocolate brand Conguitos – think of a Malteser with big red lips and large eyes. Above the images Silva wrote: “Guess who?”
It got more than 6,000 likes, including one from Kylian Mbappé, the black Paris Saint-Germain forward who appeared on stage at the Fifa event. Was the tweet racist? Silva insisted it was not and Mendy said he was not offended. But plenty of people thought it played on a racist caricature – and at the very least, one would say the logo looks as shamefully out of date as the late and not at all lamented Robertson’s jam “golliwog” mascot.
Anyway, the tweet was deleted, the anti-racism charity Kick It Out said they were “shocked”, the Football Association complained to City, and Silva tweeted his own complaint: “Can’t even joke with a friend these days … you guys.”
Of course, Silva can joke with his friend – it was sharing it with more than 600,000 followers that caused the problem. But what level of outrage directed at Silva would Rapinoe find inspiring? Obviously more than Mbappé and Mendy displayed. More, too, than John Barnes, who said the tweet was not racist.
And what can the authorities do to say no to racism, as Infantino instructed? There was talk of banning Silva for six matches. Or perhaps he needs to be sent away to a re-education camp – that is also a joke, Bernardo.
Here lies the problem with racism and combating it with outrage. First off, very few people actually believe they are racist. The week before Silva’s tweet Peter Beardsley was found guilty of using racist language when he was a youth coach at Newcastle and banned from football for 32 weeks. An FA independent panel found that the former England forward had called a black player a “monkey” during a game of head tennis and, on a team-building trip to the adventure park Go Ape, told black players: “You should be used to that.”
But the panel stated it did not think Beardsley was racist. And nor, apparently, does he. Really? “Monkey?” “Go Ape – you should be used to that?” What was he thinking? The answer, almost certainly, is he wasn’t thinking. And nor I suspect was Silva. Neither of them would sign up to a campaign that said “Yes to racism”. For them it was all just “banter”.
With obvious exceptions, racism isn't usually overt but largely an insidious, unexamined process, an accumulation of negative ideas and images – of which I would say the Conguitos mascot is a small but not inconsequential part – that eventually come bursting forth from the reptilian depths of inflamed minds.
Last weekend those ugly depths came to the surface at the National League match between Hartlepool and Dover, which was nearly called off after Dover’s Inih Effiong was racially abused by a small group of fans. But why should a few racists stop a match? And what happens when a player is targeted because his wife had an affair or due to homophobia? Should those matches be called off, too?
Racism is structural at its base. Sterling was on to something when last year he drew a contrast between how two young Manchester City players – one black, one white – were treated in press reports about their buying expensive houses for their mothers. One was celebrated, the other portrayed as flash. As Stan Collymore said at the time: “You don’t have to be a genius … to figure out which is which.” Collymore went on to blame the lack of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the media for the problem. Doubtless it is an important factor. But it is also a little more complex than that. The Daily Mail journalist who wrote the story Sterling criticised was himself from an Asian background.
Ultimately it will not be the demise of the Conguitos mascot or unfair stories about black footballers that spells the end of racism but both will be signs that we are heading in the right direction.
In many respects football leads the argument against racial prejudice. It is an impressively diverse environment, at least among the players – the coaching side has a long way to go (hence the survival of Beardsley’s approach to team bonding).
But, if Fifa and its continental counterparts really want to say no to racism, they have a role to play, particularly with large-scale examples of it. One happened this year in Montenegro, where locals racially abused Sterling during the match with England. Such incidents should, in the first instance, lead to teams having to play behind closed doors for several matches – Montenegro were punished by Uefa for one match.
The game’s authorities should have no problem banning guilty fans because they have allowed the banning of innocent ones for many years. Rapinoe, in her speech, said she was inspired by the “young Iranian woman who eventually set herself on fire because she wasn’t able to go to the game”. She did not get a name-check but she was called Sahar Khodayari and she killed herself early this month after she was charged with committing a “sinful act” – ie, trying to watch an Iranian men’s football match.
Infantino now claims he has got Iran to admit women to future matches. But why has it taken so long? How has Iran (Saudi Arabia, too, until last year) been allowed to compete in Fifa competitions while preventing half its population from watching? Perhaps Fifa feared that, if it penalised such nations, it would be accused of racism. That would be a terrible irony.
Expressing outrage about racism is necessary. But it should never be confused with what it takes to stop it.
The Guardian Sport