On Tuesday night, amidst the fires of Polish patriotism, the mighty England football team played with courage, unity and no little skill to prevail against a dangerous and talented Poland team set up to play counter-attacking football at a breath-taking pace.
In the national euphoria that immediately followed qualification for the World Cup in Brazil next year, few could have predicted how quickly that team unity would be called into question. The ugly spectre of racism has risen once more to blight ‘the beautiful game’ and raise doubts in the minds of some as to the Football Association’s will or motivation to deal with this emotive issue.
At the centre of this latest scandal is a half-time team talk given by Roy Hodgson, the England manager and the language he used to offer tactical instructions to his multicultural team. Hodgson used an old NASA joke as a metaphor for his instructions, finishing by pointing at the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Andros Townsend and urging his players to ‘feed the monkey’, a reference from the NASA joke meaning to give Townsend the ball.
The reference might have had no significance whatsoever for many players, but given that Townsend is of mixed race origin and that monkey chanting has been used extensively as a form of racist abuse toward black and mixed race players, an individual within the room decided to take matters further.
Within hours of the game, this unnamed player relayed the story to his agent, who then informed a reporter with the Scottish Sun, who ran the story the following morning reporting the offence that the player had taken at the ‘racist ‘ comments by the manager.
Within twenty four hours of England’s victory what should have been a tale of triumph at topping the qualification group with two excellent attacking displays inside a week, became instead an ugly witch hunt as various factions took turns to denounce the England Manager’s choice of words and offer the incident as further proof that racism is alive and well in English football.
Hermann Ousely, Jason Roberts and that champion of race equality and harmony Peter Herbert all waded in with their opinions and demanded inquiries. The England team, bemused by the attack on Hodgson rallied to tweet their support for the beleaguered manager and the FA moved quickly to question all present to find out who had been offended.
Hodgson moved to diffuse the situation by offering a full explanation of the context in which he made the comment, stating that no offence was intended but he was sorry if any offence had been taken. When it became clear that no-one in the England team was prepared to make an official complaint the FA attempted to draw a line under events, declaring the matter closed and that no further statements on the subject would be forthcoming.
Even the alleged victim in the story, Andros Townsend, tweeted that he was not offended, and that it wasn’t even a story.
Thank goodness for Peter Herbert! Despite a tirade of abuse from social media labelling him a shameless self-publicist and serial bandwagon jumper, he bravely stuck his head above the parapet yet again to take offence at the lack of offence taken by Townsend. In a four page letter of complaint today he branded the FA’s decision to declare the matter closed as ‘Unacceptable’ and demanded Hodgson and all other football managers attend ‘cultural Intelligence’ training.
Peter Herbert has become well known to football fans after making a police complaint against referee Mark Clattenburg for allegedly making a racist comment to a player that he (Herbert) was not present to hear. More recently, he demanded the prosecution of Tottenham Hotspur fans who sing songs that include the word Yid as it is derogatory and racist – despite pleas by the fans that they are reclaiming the term for themselves as many of them have Jewish roots.
His latest comments are unlikely to win him many new admirers amongst the football community and many fans believe that his exploits are opportunist and aimed at drumming up work for his group, The Society of Black Lawyers.
Twitter is awash with anti-Herbert sentiment with comments such as: ‘funny I hear the word Monkey and I picture a Monkey, Peter Herbert hears the word Monkey and he pictures a black man – who’s the racist here?’
Other’s point to Herbert’s organisation SBL, asking if he is against discrimination why does he run an organisation that only lets in black lawyers? There is no doubt that there are many issues in football today that deserve scrutiny, such as the underrepresentation of black managers in the modern game, but the sad truth is that creating a public antipathy toward antiracism groups by pursuing issues such as ‘Monkeygate’ undermine the credibility of these groups, and reduce their potential to effect positive change in football, and the larger society.
We may not be there yet in terms of true equality, and the wheels of change move slowly, but if Twitter is any sort of barometer to public opinion then this much is clear: The aggressive use of the weapon of litigation may buy us greater equality, but we must be prepared for the possibility that in taking this course we will pay the cost in the currency of racial harmony.