Football through the looking glass
The John Terry racism trial has made for a sorrier spectacle than the average England match, writes Harley Filben
Conservative cultural commentators have always been sniffy and suspicious about the emergence of new genres and art forms. Television rotted our brains; then video games encouraged the young to psychotic violence. Of course, it is not television, cinema, popular fiction, games or anything else that is the privileged cultural practice in Britain today - that accolade belongs to football.
It is thus becoming wearisomely familiar for broader society - and especially the so-called chattering classes - to whip itself into an almighty frenzy about the bad behaviour of footballers and fans. The latest opportunity has come with the trial of John Terry, the Chelsea and England defender widely noted for being led repeatedly into trouble by his mouth and his penis alike.
Terry - as readers cannot fail to have noticed at some point over the last year - was alleged to have called Queens Park Rangers player Anton Ferdinand a “fucking black cunt” during a game last season. Much soul-searching was trudged through at the time, since it coincided with a similar incident involving Liverpool’s Luis Suarez. Suarez was landed with an eight-match ban; extraordinarily, Terry was charged with a “racially aggravated public order offence”.
The trial tells us nothing new about the supposed ingrained racism in footballing culture (of which, more later). It is, at least, a timely reminder of the general function of the British courts, which is to dispense justice in rough proportion to the money thrown at barristers. Terry is hardly a poor man himself - and behind him, he has Chelsea Football Club, the footballing colony of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.
It is not impossible that John Terry used the words ‘fucking black cunt’ in a straightforwardly malicious manner. With sufficiently expensive lawyers, however, enough doubt can be cast on the context of the insult that Terry can be acquitted. So it duly happened: the presiding magistrate was convinced enough by a frankly Byzantine argument (that Terry was sarcastically repeating Ferdinand’s previous accusation of using the offending phrase) to let him off.
In a sane world, Terry would not even be accused of this ‘crime’. He would not have to resort to formal-logical games or require the vast expense of a top-tier legal team - the notion that a verbal altercation between two football players constituted any kind of “public order offence” would be laughed out of court.
Ours is not a sane world, however - and thanks to its absurd over-valuation of soccer, all the collective neuroses and structural imbalances of contemporary British society manifest themselves in the beautiful game as in a fairground mirror: stretched and distorted to the point of caricature. The sheer volume of establishment tetchiness on display in the last couple of weeks has been staggering, given the insignificance of the Loftus Road incident.
The smaller displays of silliness are sometimes the most beautiful - the insistence, for example, of the media on styling the offending phrase “f***ing black c***”, dancing delicately around the officially designated curses, while leaving the word that supposedly caused public disorder unmolested; or indeed, the moment of chief magistrate Howard Riddle’s judgment, in which the good, worthy gentleman was required to say, in the tone of high official seriousness: “Weighing all the evidence together, I think it is highly unlikely that Mr Ferdinand accused Mr Terry on the pitch of calling him a black cunt.”
Above all, however, what is on display is our culture’s utterly neurotic attitude towards race. The bad old days are supposed to be gone; not even the Tory right can get away with open racism these days. Nelson Mandela was once a byword in such circles for dangerous terrorist fanatics - now he is a secular saint.
In the last 50, and especially in the last 30 years, the British state has bent over backwards to clear out its old imperial racist baggage. The result has been the state policy of multiculturalism, and a state-sponsored anti-racist ideology. Black, white or anything else, we are all Britons - united in our participation in those timeless British values of tolerance, liberalism and democracy. (It need hardly be said that the purported ‘timelessness’ of these values is a very historically specific ideology.)
Racism, nevertheless, persists. Its predominant expression today would be Islamophobia, which presents itself as a defence of the aforementioned ‘British values’ against intolerant Muslims - yet the bottom line is the same as it was with the biological racism of an Arnold Lees: harassment, up to and including physical attacks, of the brown-skinned Other.
There is also what you might call ‘capillary racism’ - the use of racial epithets and racist jokes remains broadly accepted in common language (although now only on the basis that all participants in the discourse accept that none are ‘really’ racist). The offensiveness of such language is hard to gauge, and depends largely on context - certainly it does not carry the same weight of popular prejudice as it did in the relatively recent past, but nor is it as neutered as the word ‘sinister’, which once implied that the left-handed were creatures of the devil.
The state is officially anti-racist, but unable to extinguish racism. Its necessary commitment to a chauvinist fetishism of the British nation, combined with the long-term legacy of colonialism and imperial hegemony, is enough to see to that. This is not enough to stop the plucky little anti-racists of officialdom trying - through ever more repressive legislation and police actions.
That these actions do not really work is clearly visible in the present case. Consider poor old Anton Ferdinand - he did not bring any complaint or initiate the court proceedings, or indeed do anything apart from allegedly being called a “fucking black cunt” during a football match; but the trial has, if anything, forced him more into the spotlight and subjected him to the tribal wrath of Chelsea FC loyalists.
It is this general aspect of the affair - the unseemly aggression apparently inherent in football, as well as its chequered history vis-à-vis race - that has triggered, as usual, the largest volume of chattering-class angst.
Whether or not football is racist in its fundamental culture today is rather hard to judge: racism is, in this country at least, officially frowned upon to a sufficient point that no racist player would be stupid enough to reel off his opinions if he thought anyone was listening. The days of black players having banana skins thrown at them by idiotic crowd members are more or less over. Certainly, it seems very unlikely that John Terry is some sort of white supremacist, being as he is the captain of a team drawn from all over the world.
Indeed, the great and final leap into self-parody last week came when Rio Ferdinand, Anton’s brother, accused Ashley Cole, who testified in Terry’s favour, of being a “choc-ice” - which seems to be a very British version of the African-American ‘Oreo cookie’. His attempts to disclaim any racial content to this jibe were frankly even more ridiculous than Terry’s ‘sarcasm defence’; but the important thing is that the insult was only provoked because Terry’s black team mates were quite eager to rush to his defence.
This means, of course, that they had to be comfortable with their captain allegedly throwing around racial epithets on the pitch. There is, apart from the obvious, no reason they wouldn’t be - because football culture, far more than it is racist, is macho. Players hurl all the abuse at each other that they can muster - the more offensive, the better. They squabble, cajole and occasionally shove each other around like yobs in the worst kind of pub.
The culture of the dressing room is based around macho male-bonding rituals. The victims are the obvious ones - women and especially gays, who must surely exist in significant numbers in the English game, but well and truly dare not speak their names. Justin Fashanu, to this day the only openly gay professional footballer in English history, was hounded to his suicide; Graeme le Saux was the target of homophobic abuse throughout his playing career, more or less on the bases that he had been to university and read The Guardian.
The closest analogue to this culture is that of the barracks; and, just as any form of abuse will serve the drill sergeant in his campaign to dehumanise every recruit, so it is on the football pitch. The least important thing about racist abuse in this context is that it is racist.
Given the absurd hysteria over cases like this, it is easy to fall into a kind of cultural complacency - calm down, it’s all just a bit of fun … That is a temptation to be resisted. It is hardly healthy that the culture surrounding football thrives so completely on casual offensiveness; and the terraces’ overlap with far-right politics is very real (the English Defence League is an obvious example, and there are more disturbing ones on the continent).
Yet this phenomenon is simply a peculiarly acute version of a deformed subjectivity typical of capitalist society more generally. Culture cannot be abolished by fiat. The left should not be led by its salutary opposition to racism and bigotry to support for official anti-racism, which in its own perverted way is just as divisive as racism itself. In the terraces and in wider society, it does not solve the fundamental problems: it aggravates them.