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Football fans not just at Sunderland, but all over - let’s stamp racism out of the game together

Be honest - we’ve all heard it. Some of us have shouted it. More have whispered it under our breath. But the majority ignore it. Does our silence make us complicit in the bigotry?

Gary Bennett - Sunderland captain and anti-racism campaigner
Show Racism The Red Card

Fulwell 73’s utterly mesmerising and beautifully produced Netflix documentary Sunderland Til’ I Die is a gorgeous and melodic ode to the tragic yet bliss-filled life of the dedicated football devotee, who give the best of themselves and more to the club they’re communally welded to for eternity.

Football worship is addictive and compulsive. The core of our adoration coerces our emotions, throwing them regularly into psychological hurricanes.

But, we’re not alone in this blissful madness.

There’s a brotherhood and sisterhood created by this sense of tribalism that can be uplifting, supportive, moving and inspiring. Our sporting discipleship weaves the very fabric of our impassioned essence into the tapestry of our football clubs and this tie is strong - often unbreakable.

Those ties build a sense of self, a sense of family, a sense of belonging and a sense of identity. It’s seductive and captivating. It woos us with history, passion and the promise of glory. It’s an addiction without equal. Like all feverish dependencies, as well as pumping pleasure, joy and delirium through our team-coloured hearts, football as a sport and our consequential fanaticism can be selfish, intolerable, impulsive and cruel.

At what point in the proceedings of our football-based merriment do we begin to analyse our escapism and bear a greater responsibility for who we really are and what we actually represent?

In recent days we’ve been reminded once again of the fragile nature of racial harmony in football by the front-page headlines delivered by the savage treatment of Raheem Sterling by Chelsea supporters at a recent match against City.

We all saw it. We all know what was said. I don’t care for excuses. The behaviour was certainly borne partly from tribalism and blood pumping impulsivity. The words ‘black c**t’ aside the, the image of sixty year old men losing their minds to the point of deranged and unhinged lunacy, spitting their poisonous venom at a man they don’t even know was quite horrific to watch in the cold light of day. But, the casual preference for racist language acts as a powerful catalyst towards an acceptance that losing control of our impulses at a football match is one thing - and mindless, hateful bile regarding a person’s race and colour is quite another.

We’re all guilty of one, but only a certain breed of low lives are responsible for the other.

Sunderland supporter Tom Albrighton recently shared his experience from the hallowed ground we all share week after week. After recounting an incident with a father and son duo of ignorant and completely unrepentant transgressors - howling racist and homophobic abuse from our very own terraces - Tom shared the discomfort of this incident, in the hope that others unfortunate enough to find themselves in similar circumstances can find the courage and forethought to challenge and report such unwelcome and imbecilic behaviour.

Tom’s exposure to this race-fuelled, unapologetic and self-entitled abuse was one of admirable challenge. He heard the foul race-baiting and homophobic verbal assault and confronted those responsible.

Be honest - we’ve all heard it. Some of us have shouted it. More have whispered it under our breath. But the majority ignore it. Does our collective inaction condone the hateful ideology? Does our silence make us complicit in the bigotry?

I take my 9 year old son to matches and as a parent, you can’t control everything your young child hears at a football match. Realistically, you just have to roll with the occasional bout of frustrated profanity, safe in the knowledge, that most of what you hear does not come from a source of malice, regardless of how coarse the resulting words of that frustration may be. I don’t want sanitized terraces with muted, subdued followers, sitting tacitly like red and white striped Monks on a vow of silence.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

I want noise. I want passion. I want madness. I want howling. I want hollering. I want chanting. I want singing. I want humour. I want emotion. I want anger. I want despair. I want cheers. I want pride. I want all of the gut-wrenching, heart-bursting, lung inducing emotional outpouring that is possible to receive from a fierce 90 minute slice of a Saturday afternoon. I want every last drop of that love, adoration and sentiment that was so evident and gleefully celebrated in ‘Sunderland Til’ I Die’.

But, none of that has to come at a price. Indeed, racism is not about any of that. Homophobia is not about any of that.

The core of such racist prejudicial feelings run so much deeper and burns with so much more bitterness. Many of those drenched in racism and consumed with irrational fears cannot be reached by sports opinion articles.

They are lost in the populist minefield of fear, inadequacy, failure and self-loathing.

This article is not aimed at converting the unconvertible. It’s not written to persuade the unpersuadable. This is written to encourage the challengers, to embolden the reporters of abuse, to strengthen the quiet supporter to take a stand and inform on those that bring the worst society has to offer into our footballing home. Our home.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

When Paul Canoville became the first black footballer to play for Chelsea in 1982 the National Front held a meeting and encouraged other fans to join the outrage. Chelsea supporters screamed, “Sit down, you black c**t”, “You fucking w*g’’. Then they started to chant: “We don’t want the n****r, we don’t want the n****r, la la la la.”

That was 36 years ago. We should be a living in a time of perspective, where the cancerous nature of racism, is viewed solely through the metaphorical rear view mirror of history. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

The Kick it Out campaign must be credited with much of the applause for the clear improvement made since 1982. But, the most crucial contributors to this cultural evolution are the talented black and ethnic minority players, like Raheem Sterling. They’ve graced our game since the late 70’s and continue to do so with elegance and passion. Their skill, drive, heroism and example have elevated them from suspicious interlopers to genuine heroes. Yet there are some, who still want to banish them to the perimeters of society. We - the comfortable majority - have not done enough to narrow the distance between enmity and unity. We’ve not done enough to educate, We’ve not done enough to empathise and we’ve not done enough to eradicate.

There is no enough, until it’s gone and gone forever.

Racism still exists in our game and not just in the stands - and it’s not overtly visible either. Sunderland’s legendary captain Gary Bennett, a key advocate who fights against racism, has exclaimed:

We have made great strides in the country in tackling the issue but it has raised its head again… You cannot be complacent. You have got to keep on top of it on a daily basis. The minute you take your foot off, then that’s when you start to get problems.

Gary Bennett | Show Racism The Red Card

Sadly, the slow, volcanic return of visible and vitriolic racism and use of racist language in football is creeping its demonic head above the parapet of civility.

By the beginning of 2018, the reports of racist language and racist abuse at matches in England had increased 70% since 2012.

In this last year, and to worldwide coverage, many NFL players across the pond took a knee to peacefully protest racial injustice in their country. They are taking a stand to represent those who have no voice, no influence and no platform. They’ve decided enough is enough. World Cup winner and former Juventus and Barcelona legend Lilian Thuram discussed the subject recently in an interview with Reuters:

I would love it if soccer players did it (took a knee), I think it would be fascinating to see that, and not just black players either... I hope that this resistance movement will spread itself outside the USA and that more people, regardless of skin colour, follow in their footsteps to create a better society.

And that’s the rub right? We don’t just want better football fans, or more tolerant terraces. We want our society to be more forgiving and progressive. Our families to be more loving and accepting. Our children to be more compassionate and inclusive. We can play more of a part in that process. All of us.

Football is a glorious invention that can unify and rejoice. It can connect strangers and celebrate the best of who we are. Football is an all-encompassing obsession woven into our DNA every bit as much as any religion or social practice can ever be.

It’s why we love it so much.

The millions who adore this game for all of its intense beauty and its horrendous lows are an army - and we can decide if the wheel of racism and intolerance continues to spin or whether we smash it altogether and eradicate it for good. I pray we do the latter.