Football’s Sly Incivility

A guest post by R.M. Christofides

The Chelsea fans who, with neo-colonialist, Brit-aboard arrogance,
racially abused a black man on the Paris Metro have added to the long list of
racist incidents in the game recently. Still ongoing is the investigation into Malky
Mackay’s leaked communications; still ringing in the ears are the words of
Mackay’s employer, Wigan owner Dave Whelan, who claimed that ‘Jewish people
chase money more than anybody else’ and that the term ‘Chinks’ is
unproblematic; still absent are the black managers in the dugout to match the
black presence out on the pitch; still excluded are Asian and other minority
ethnic communities often marginalized by the Anglocentric grassroots culture of
the game. So let’s be clear that the barbarous thugs on the Paris Metro were
neither unrepresentative nor a far-right minority: they are the vulgar end of a
racist thread still woven into the fabric of the British game. And it is this
racist thread that offers one of the most compelling reasons for the continued
backing of Sepp Blatter’s corrupt FIFA regime by African and South American
football associations.

It has become axiomatic in postcolonial studies that human and other
resources outside the European core are exploited for the benefit of the
dominant white communities of the West. Football, as clear a reflection of
global capitalism as exists in sport, does the same: black players of all
backgrounds have become an integral part of the modern game despite the
appalling racism many of them suffered in the past and continue to suffer. An
apocryphal – and I suspect probably true – story of two racists at a Chelsea
game sums this up: hurling abuse at the club’s first black player, Paul
Canoville, one paused, turned to the other, and said, ‘He can play though,
can’t he?’ Recognition for on-pitch ability has not extended to the dugout,
however: black ex-professionals are still locked out of managerial positions,
considered the preserve of cerebral ex-professionals and, consequently, a white
man’s game. As Homi K. Bhabha asks, can there ever be a passage from alienation
to authority? That there does not seem to be such a passage in English football
can, in part, explain Blatter’s remarkably obdurate endurance. Despite evident
corruption, Blatter has remained resolute, FIFA impossibly, exploitatively
profitable, and the Swiss looks odds on for a fifth term in office. The
opposition from UEFA and the European football associations, of which the
English FA is the most prominent voice, has thus far proved powerless.

Blatter, far better than the English officials who like to criticize
him, has understood the post-colonial environment of global football. Those
African, Asian and South American officials who continue to support him represent
footballing cultures in which exclusion by the English governance of Stanley
Rous lives on in the collective memory. The title of David Yallop’s How They Stole The Game, which documents
the post-Rous corruption of FIFA from João Havelange’s headship onwards, is
doubly significant. ‘They’, the others of the planet in the global south,
‘stole’ our game. The assumption too often made on these shores is that English
governance prior to Havelange was benevolent. The colonizing discourse of the
white man’s burden lingers on in this assumption, but, amongst other things
that are whitewashed from eulogies of Rous and his golden age, is how he continually
side-stepped calls from Africa and Asia to expand the World Cup and also brought
apartheid South Africa back into FIFA against the wishes of the Confederation
of African Football.

Havelange and Blatter after him took the game to the world, with Blatter
presiding over the first Asian, African and Middle Eastern World Cup. Luis Figo
has seen this and, in his campaign to challenge Blatter, has promised to expand
the World Cup to 48 teams, playing the Swiss at his own game. Meanwhile, the
general consensus here has been that expansion will ‘dilute’ the quality of the
tournament. The rhetoric often used could not smack more of colonial fears of
miscegenation. Faced with the incumbent or those who once excluded them, it’s
easy to see why those outside of Europe support Blatter. England’s attempts to
curry favour with officials for their World Cup 2018 bid only further demonstrated
another axiom of postcolonial life openly acknowledged abroad more than here:
the construction of the other as mendacious and corrupt always masks the mendacity
and corruption at the core of Empire. The disgustingly uncivilized behaviour on
the Paris Metro of people who probably cheered the house down when Didier
Drogba converted the penalty that won the Champions League in 2012 serves as a
metaphor for one last postcolonial axiom: despite how crucial black footballers
are to the mind-boggling profitability of the English game, Anglo-Saxon
goodwill still ends when ‘they’ try to enter the boardroom.

R.M. Christofides is a literary scholar and the author of Shakespeare and the Apocalypse

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