Fans must face up to racism in football

Fans must face up to racism in football

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Last month, players and fans paid tribute to Cyrille Regis, a pioneer of equality and a role model for many players who have subsequently become legends in British football.

 

But as well as the sadness of losing an important sporting figure, there was discomfort as football fans across the UK were forced to examine a period where black and ethnic minority players routinely faced physical and verbal abuse from the stands.

 

Scotland was not immune to this disease. In fact, former Rangers player Mark Walters recently described his debut season in Scotland in harrowing detail. In his debut against Celtic, the left-winger was taunted with bananas and other fruit. An away game against Hearts at Tynecastle hit the headlines for the volume and brutality of the behaviour from the home fans.

 

Stamping out the vocal minority

 

Footage exists on YouTube of this game, where commentator Archie MacPherson describes fruit “raining down” on Walters at the corner flag. There is even a PA announcement urging the Hearts fans to stop the abuse.

 

This shocking event happened in 1988, and seems a world away from the slick, professional family-orientated game we watch in Scotland today. Now, like other clubs, Hearts is broadly an inclusive and friendly experience.

 

I mention this partly to highlight how far we have come. But also because, as a Hearts season ticket holder and fan of more than 20 years, we must face up to the fact that those views remain in a minority of our support.

 

Former Hearts forward Isma Goncalves, who recently left the club after a year-long spell, revealed in an interview with the Edinburgh Evening News that he faced racist abuse from Hearts fans in the stands during his time in the capital. The abuse was directed at him in front of his wife and young son, who later stopped attending games at Tynecastle.

 

Every Hearts fan who read that piece should feel anger and shame, but not shock.

 

 

In recent years, the amount of racism, homophobia and sectarianism at Tynecastle has reduced significantly, partly down to the efforts of supporters in shutting down such behaviour as it starts.

 

We are not unique in having an element in its support who hold backward and unacceptable views, but we need to tackle them head on. This means acknowledging that these arseholes exist, and are perhaps more prevalent in the stands and the pubs around the ground than we would like to admit.

 

The Gorgie Boys remains a part of the songbook, with its refrain of “up to our knees in Fenian blood” now relegated to games against Celtic and Hibs. A homophobic song about city rivals, Hibs, is occasionally dusted off by a hardcore section at away matches.

 

Since Goncalves spoke out, many fans on forums and social media have shared stories of bigoted comments and abuse aimed at opposition and our own players from the stands at Tynecastle, not always challenged by other supporters.

 

Whataboutery and excuses 

 

We all have to share culpability for allowing some comments to go by without response.

 

Other fans have sought to question or undermine his story by imagining an agenda against Hearts, or attempted to deflect blame onto other rival clubs. These people need to be quiet, listen and take responsibility.

 

The rivalries in Scottish football are deep and hard-fought, some involving societal issues going back longer than the clubs themselves. But dealing with racism in the game is undermined by idiots using it as a point-scoring exercise, or blindly defending the name of their club in the face of horrific behaviour from supporters. It will require a joined up approach which goes beyond partisanship.

 

📝 Club statement

👉 https://t.co/SdMCBY8iJU pic.twitter.com/PIX4GFNOSM

— Heart of Midlothian (@JamTarts) February 14, 2018

 

Isma’s comments are measured and he is at pains to show respect for the majority of fans at the club who supported him while he was at Tynecastle. Hearts, for their part, made a strong statement supporting the forward and condemning the racist behaviour.

 

Anne Budge has been rightly credited for helping to foster a more inclusive atmosphere for the vast majority of decent Hearts fans, and actively attempting to clamp down on bigots hiding among the Hearts support. Central to this was an anonymous phone and text service for fans to alert club stewards when they witness any such behaviour.

 

Nil by Mouth and Show Racism the Red Card do important work in promoting equality, but there is also a wider footballing dimension. Scottish clubs failed to agree to strict liability (where clubs are punished for the behaviour of fans off the field as well as the actions of players), which is widely practised across Europe and is supported by Nil by Mouth as a means to stamp out sectarianism.

 

Goncalves’s story should be a harsh lesson for those who thought that racism at football had gone completely. It is an uncomfortable truth that we need to face up to if Scottish football has any chance of eradicating bigotry from the stands.

 

 

 

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