By David Alexander
When I first started watching football in the 1980s, the beautiful game was anything but a family-friendly affair.
I remember watching bus loads of fans being carted away before or after starting trouble at non-descript games; the National Front handing out leaflets at one particular East London club ground; and Arsenal fans sitting around me making monkey noises and laughing about it.
Middle-aged, middle-class men in expensive seats who thought such behaviour was OK.
As a young boy, I recall being chased around as a version of the Boney M classic was tweaked to “Brown boy in the drain”; having stones thrown at my parents’ car; and being subjected to racist abuse on a regular basis.
At school, teachers didn’t know how to deal with racism and I was simply told that it would be just as wrong if I uttered racist words to my fellow pupils, even if I would never do so.
Fortunately, society has evolved and until recently, racism has been considered the unacceptable scourge that it should be in the UK.
And racism at football is what happens in other countries, right?
Whether it is down to Brexit or not, the language used to describe Europeans and refugees as the cause of many of society’s problems has seen prejudice rear its ugly head once more.
It’s as if we have regressed to a darker age, where racist comments are acceptable in many scenarios, whether overtly or through subliminal use of language which is just about pejorative enough to plant seeds of negativity into the minds of those more easily swayed.
On my way back from Arsenal’s derby win against Tottenham at the start of December, when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a banana thrown at him, some fans on the train talked to someone who supported neither team and was asking about the match, having boarded at an earlier stop.
He still felt it was acceptable to utter obscenities towards Son Heung-min who “should stick to making Chinese takeaways” (despite being from South Korea).
No one said anything to call the individual out.
Fast forward to the recent match between Chelsea and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge, and the contorted faces filmed abusing Raheem Sterling have provoked a debate about racism in the public consciousness once more.
Sterling, to his credit, ignored his treatment and got on with it.
The next day, he posted an update on Instagram calling for black players to be treated in the media in the same way as white players, after stories emerged of two young City players buying homes for their parents. The reports about the white player were seen as a young man giving something back and the black player was criticised for spending when he was still in the infancy of his career.
Sterling, of course, has been a target for media criticism before, over his lifestyle, his home and his choice of tattoo. The same levels of scrutiny and opprobrium have not been given to Caucasian players on such a regular basis.
And it was revealed that he had spoken about it to England coach Gary Neville in 2016 about the excessive criticism and abuse he has experienced while representing his country. This is no knee-jerk reaction.
Go back 25 years and John Barnes, arguably one of the most talented players of his generation who won trophies and accolades while starring for Liverpool, was often lambasted while representing England and even booed at Wembley after his patriotism was brought into question.
Some, such as former Daily Mirror Editor Piers Morgan, have argued that David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and others have been criticised in equal measure by the media – and that may well be the case.
But when Kick It Out, the anti-discrimination charity, says that discriminatory abuse in football has increased 11% last season – the sixth consecutive year it has risen, it certainly gives cause for concern.
The Professional Footballers’ Association was quick to back Sterling, quite rightly, although their long-standing Chief Executive, Gordon Taylor, has faced his own complaints after being reported to have called black players “coloured”, which I certainly do not consider offensive but which some clearly take umbrage with.
Do the media need to take all the blame? I don’t think so, despite some of the incendiary headlines certain newspapers have used towards Sterling and others in recent memory.
You only have to look at the disproportionate number of black managers in the English game to see that the issues go deeper than just idiots on the terraces.
This is a problem in society where the dialogue of politics has been about separation, us versus them, division and suspicion. You’re not welcome anymore unless you were here in the first place.
Sport is a reflection of society and at Calacus we work with organisations who want to use sport to facilitate positive change at local, national and international level.
One has to hope that the latest televised abuse prompts more than five minutes of discourse about racism in this country and remind us all that prejudice of any kind has no place in the world in the 21st Century.
Sport has an opportunity to lead the way here by addressing the problem and setting an example that positively influences wider elements of society.