Friday, 20 May 2011

Football's greater evils not solely Scotland's shame

It has been an ugly season for Scottish football. Off-field issues have dominated throughout and, even in the past week, the role that sectarianism plays in our game has been scrutinised.

If there can be any positives taken from the re-emergence of this stain it must be that problems latent in society but evidenced by football can create a public platform for such issues to be discussed properly and honestly.

Unfortunately a pattern is emerging not only in Scotland but across Europe that this is not the case.

On Monday Uefa announced that Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets would face no sanction for the comments he made to Real Madrid player Marcelo in the first-leg of the pair's Champions League semi-final; comments that Real Madrid alleged were racist.

Whilst making such a grand and public stand against racism would have been welcomed, the justiciability of banning a player from a Champions League final with what could at best be described as inconclusive evidence meant that action against Busquets was never likely to be forthcoming. But neither Barcelona or Real Madrid come out of this affair with their credit intact.

Indeed, the most damming indictment of any guilt on Busquets’ part came from his own club. In the build up to the second-leg of the tie, not long after the allegations against Busquets had emerged, Barca coach Pep Guardiola appeared to accept some fault on behalf of the player, saying he had made a "mistake" but that it was up to Uefa to punish him.

It took some 10 more days for Busquets' reasoning that he had muttered the words "mucho morro" (you've got some cheek) to Marcelo rather than the "mono, mono" (monkey, monkey) that Real had claimed. Would such a big club, especially one which is never backward in coming forward in showcasing its sparkling reputation, treat such a serious allegation so calmly if they thought it was false?

For Real the allegations are potentially just as damaging. By submitting a complaint they almost certainly knew could not be upheld - and then denying they had done so - they stand accused of deliberately trying to sully their greatest rivals reputation with a tag of racism and in the process fan the flames of their own agenda that Uefa treat Barcelona favourably.

Yet, the biggest issue of all is that such a high profile incident has not sparked a debate in Spain about the problems of racism that undoubtedly are rooted within much of Spanish society.

As we have seen in this country, distasteful events at football matches are often just a reflection of greater societal problems. As we also recognise though, often the debate is ruined by arguments formed down tribal rather than rational lines.

The hypocrisy of much of the debate in Spain was symbolised in the coverage of the row by Madrid sports daily Marca. As Real denounced Busquets' actions, the paper – a mouthpiece for the club – ran multiple stories highlighting the “scandal”. However, it paid no such attention to comments by Barcelona right-back Dani Alves earlier in the season that racism in Spanish football was “uncontrollable”; so much so that many black players treated racism as something of an occupational hazard in Spain.

Across the Pyrenees, France’s own racial stereotyping scandal was meandering meekly towards a conclusion.

Three weeks ago the website Mediapart revealed secret recordings showing that national team manager Laurent Blanc and other senior officials within the French Football Association had discussed introducing quotas to limit the number of dual-nationality players at youth training academies.

The plan allegedly involved limiting the number of non-white youngsters from entering the national academies from as early as age 12 or 13. One suggestion revealed in a transcript of the meetings was to set a cap of 30% on players of dual-nationality origin.

According to the transcripts, Blanc reportedly favoured the idea of quotas and made comments regarding the multitude of "big, strong, powerful" black players in France. The transcript also showed him favouring players with "our culture, our history" and citing Spain as an example: "The Spanish, they say: 'We don't have a problem. We have no blacks.'"

Here again football has been used somewhat of a looking glass to problems related to identity in French society.

After France’s disastrous showing at the World Cup last year a number of prominent figures on the far-right of the political spectrum blamed the embarrassing exit on the number of players within the squad of West and North African heritage.

Forgetting that a side with much the same make-up won the World Cup on home soil in 1998, they targeted the squad as resembling a lazy attitude amongst the youth in French society. A youth they claim that did not know or care what it meant to be French.

Blanc was a fierce critic of the World Cup squad himself. For his first match in charge against Norway in August he suspended all 23 of the players who had travelled to South Africa and instructed all of his players to learn and sing the national anthem.

This week Blanc was also cleared of any wrongdoing by the French sports ministry who had called an investigation into the matter when the story broke.

Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno said: "It emerges very clearly that ways to limit the numbers of so-called dual-national players ... including putting in place quotas were, in fact, debated at the November French Football Federation (FFF) meeting. The subject was raised in a manner both clumsy and clearly uncalled-for. The general impression that emerges is really very unpleasant, with innuendos that very often were borderline tending toward racist.

However, they found that, "no fact shows Laurent Blanc approves of discriminatory procedures."

As the scandal fades into the distance, washed away by a country enthralled with the demise of a potential president, the issues at the heart of the matter still remains – is it ok to racially stereotype when in a position of power? And what does it mean to be French?

Football cannot take the full weight of responsibility for these incidents. It is impossible to be the people’s game without society’s problems, but by not coming down hard on such public and high-profile cases of sectarianism, racism or discrimination it does allow the attitude that such actions are acceptable to linger.

So Scotland does not stand alone in the ugliness of its game away from the field of play but it can learn from others mistakes. Shying away from the issue helps nobody. If such problems are debated, used for educational purposes and learned from they can at least provide a silver lining.

Sadly due to the tribalism of sport, next season will in all likelihood just see a repeat of such incidents becoming a vehicle for the hatred and discrimination to continue.

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