FIFA has just been handed a chance to make a move in the on-going battle between themselves and UEFA for the “most toothless football association” award: a few days ago, the organization Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) contacted FIFA in response to alleged racist chanting by England fans during the recent match against San Marino. If FIFA contrives to handle this incident correctly, for once, there is a chance that they will take themselves right out of the running for the afore-mentioned award, allowing Michel Platini’s band of bumbling buffoons to pick it up.
Hapless governing bodies aside though, this latest episode of racism must be met with a show of strength – something that has not been forthcoming from the lawmakers of football . The song that FARE claims was sung at the England-San Marino game went like this: “Build a bonfire, build a bonfire. Put Rio on the top. Put Anton in the middle. Then burn the f***ing lot.”
The response from many fans and supporters, mostly online and over social media, is that since nowhere in the song does bigotry make an appearance, the song is not racist. Indeed, Adrian Bevington, managing director of Club England, seemed to concur:
While we have no reason to dispute the media reports, which are without doubt made for the right reasons of fighting racism, at this time we have not found any recorded evidence of the specific discriminatory chanting referring to Rio and Anton Ferdinand and the vile ‘bonfire’ song. We will, of course, continue to review all of our recorded footage… should evidence of any racial chanting be found, we would expect action to be taken against any individuals.
Essentially, the claim is that at no point is an overtly racist remark expressed in verse. Therefore, the song is not racist – a defence which is as lame as it is blinkered.
Of course, we don’t always have to mean what we say or say what we mean. Indirectly implying something is a wonderful literary tool that humans, and racist football fans, as it were, have employed for as long as language has existed; figuring out meaning is not just about looking at what was said, it is also about looking at the unsaid: the context of a situation.
A skinhead who smiles menacingly at you while saying “you’re gonna enjoy what’s coming next, punk” obviously doesn’t mean you’re going to enjoy the pounding that’s coming – unless violence gives you untold pleasure, in which case, fair enough. But assuming that, like most other human beings, you prefer not being pummelled, you would probably tend to agree that the stuff the bald, tattooed, mean-looking ruffian is saying should not be taken literally – his actions and the context of the situation lend a different meaning to the words explicitly spoken.
Similarly, in this instance, the context of this situation lends a different meaning to a chant that is not the most pleasant in the first place. England fans are clearly upset at Rio Ferdinand having rejected a national team call-up and jetting out to Qatar to earn some extra cash. It is possible to understand their anger and resentment – extremely perplexing (Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me) – but still possible to understand. Berating him from the terraces for a lack of patriotism is not indefensible, but why include his brother, Anton, in it? If it was indeed simply a criticism of Rio, why was Anton singled out too? Clearly there’s more to it than just banter from the terraces.
Another chant heard around Wembley was: “Rio Ferdinand: you know what you are?” Again, the same defence of lack of explicit racism can be proffered. But considering that this is exactly the same song that Anton Ferdinand had chanted at him at various Premier League grounds after he was allegedly called a “black c***” by Chelsea’s John Terry, the implied racist meaning is clear. Only someone with Arsene Wenger’s 0/20 vision could even attempt to deny this.
At the end of last year, UEFA had a chance to send out a message of intolerance for racism after deplorable scenes in a U-21 match between England and Serbia in which a number of black English players were subject to racist taunts from the Serbian supporters. In true UEFA fashion though, they bungled it spectacularly – Serbia were fined a paltry £65’000, and had to play only one U-21 match behind closed doors, amongst other equally underwhelming sanctions. The entire farce eventually came full circle when UEFA decided to appeal its own disciplinary committee’s sanctions, in an effort to punish Serbia harder. More than anything else, the entire episode just confirmed UEFA’s lack of real commitment towards anti-racism efforts.
FIFA now has the opportunity to take a strong stance against racism by holding England responsible for the disgraceful behaviour of their fans (only a minority, it must be acknowledged, but it still warrants responsibility), even if it means forcing them to play a World Cup qualifier in an empty Wembley Stadium. It is about time a governing body of football finally sent out a strong message that racism will not be tolerated in football and that it is as serious as anti-racism campaigners are in kicking racism out.
Hiding behind a defence of a lack of semantic precision and claims of supposed innocence is cowardly as much as it is disgusting. To accept such a defence is even worse: it belittles the entire anti-racism campaign and ignores the garish truth: this was an instance of flagrant racism. It is one thing to criticise players from the stands – the paying fans have a right to that – but to sink to the depths of chanting about a person’s race, skin color, or origin, is utterly unacceptable.
Albert Einstein once famously remarked:
Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe.
The racist fans at Wembley have already proved Einstein right once. Let’s hope the bureaucrats at FIFA don’t prove him right once more.