Mihir Bose: Why the past will haunt the present in 2013


Those who forget the past, said the great American savant George Santayana, are condemned to repeat it. Football in 2013 runs the same risk. This is because many of the administrators who run the game seem to have forgotten the past. Or perhaps they never cared for the past despite their many references to it in public utterances.

This explains why 2013 will be for the world’s favourite game a question of dealing with issues many thought had long been settled.

Take race.

This time two years ago most people in football were sure that race as an issue had been dealt with. The English were so confident that they event went round the world trying to teach people how to eradicate racism. However it is now hard to question the judgement of Paul Elliott, the first black captain of Chelsea, that when we thought racism was dealt with all we had done was park the issue.

Let me remind what he said to me just as the Euros were getting going. “The most disappointing thing for me is that we thought the problem was licked. We in England have been the leading light in world football in the fight against racism but it has come back to our own playground. We have to ask: did racism really go away? The answer is racism was managed not eradicated.”

I do not think our institutions are fundamentally racist as some have argued. But the fundamental problem has been football thought racism was solved once black players stopped being pelted with bananas or monkey noises were no longer heard whenever a black player touched the ball. It is easy to see why the game came to that conclusion but to do that we must remind ourselves how bad racism was.

The American writer Bill Burford then living in London experienced this at football matches in the 80s and he vividly described it in his classic book Among the Thugs. If you want to know what football was like then read that book. Football in 2012 was nothing like that. We have indeed come a long way.

This point was emphasised for me when I went a few weeks ago to see Norwich play Tottenham in a League Cup match. I took the evening train, there were football supporters on it but I did not feel remotely threatened. What is more I returned late in the evening and the only problem was the rain and trying to get transport back home late at night.

What a contrast to the early 80s. Then arriving in a town for a football match was like going to a city under siege. Police met supporters off the train and marched them to the ground to prevent any of them going on a rampage through the town centre. My personal memory is of a league match, Norwich v Arsenal, I was covering for the Sunday Times.

As I arrived at the ground escorted by the police I saw the National Front active outside the ground distributing its leaflets. One of them on seeing me began to shout very loudly, “Get your colour supplement”.

But the real horror for me came when at the end of the match I got back to the station to catch the early evening train back to London. For a time during that journey I felt I might not make it off the train in one piece.

As soon as I got on I was chased by an Arsenal supporter shouting, “Hit the coon over the head with a baseball bat”. That was then a popular football song. Fortunately for me by the time he caught up with me a policeman was at hand and no damage was done.

In a recent interview with me Herman Ouseley, chairman of Kick it Out, expressing his total disenchantment with the people who run the game in this country, drew a chilling parallel with what happened in the 80s. He told me, “Then the National Front organised outside and inside football. Now we have evidence of extreme organisations that want to get a toehold back into football, the English Defence League and other fringe groups. They are trying to penetrate back into football.”

If that is indeed happening then that is very worrying indeed. I have seen no evidence of this. All I can say is that my experience on the Norwich train recently was so radically different that the 80s memory now seems remote and alien as if it belongs to pre-history.

However the problem is that in eliminating these dreadful examples of racism what football has failed to do is deal with the fact that while black players are accepted and black spectators not attacked the game at the level of management and overall control remains essentially a white game. The glass ceilings which bar black players from becoming officials, coaches, and administrators have not been smashed.

I see no evidence that those who run the national game have devoted much thought to it let alone developed a realistic plan to deal with this issue. That does not, I repeat, make them racist. But it does mean they have not examined the issue in depth. They would do well to look at American sport where racism in society was even more deeply embedded than in Britain. But the Americans have thought of the issue at some length and steps have been taken to make fundamental changes to ensure anti racism is not just a few words spoken at a wine and canapés reception.

Club vs Country
The other issue that will figure prominently in 2013 is also an old one but which is taking on a very new form. This is the old chestnut of club versus country. The old issue was the big clubs in a country were reluctant to release players to play for the national team. The 2013 question is about which football organisation is best placed to form an alliance with the great clubs of Europe.

Now you would have thought that is a no brainer. All the big clubs want to play in the UEFA competitions, certainly the Champions League, so UEFA is their natural home.

But the big club-UEFA relationship has never been easy. For many of them UEFA is not a regulatory body. It is an organisation that runs some European competitions and it should know its place. Such mutterings have been heard all the more often as UEFA has tried to impose its financial fair pay rules. While the clubs know they must follow them if they want to play in UEFA club competitions many do not like them and nearly all of them feel UEFA is trying to reach areas it has no business meddling in.

And this is where FIFA comes in. All clubs belong to it through their national associations. Also note that it is FIFA which runs the international transfer system, not UEFA. In the past FIFA has always wanted to develop a cosy relationship with big clubs bypassing UEFA.

This was most evident back in 1998 when the so called boys from the Milan tennis club tried to set up a rival Champions League. Then UEFA frightened it might be blown away did try to develop relationship with clubs. But even then for years it was plagued by G-14 banging the drum on behalf of the big European clubs. The word then was Sepp Blatter, wanting to keep Lennart Johansson his great UEFA rival at bay, encouraged G-14.

This may not have been the case but what is very evident is that that FIFA-UEFA tension, meant to have blown away with Michel Platini, Blatter’s man running UEFA, has returned. As has became very clear in recent months relations between the two have cooled. They disagree on many issues: goal line technology and a winter world cup in Qatar being two examples. So much so that there seems little talk of Platini taking over from Blatter. If anything Blatter gives every impression of wanting to carry on and the signs are Blatter and his men are looking at the big clubs as a flank against UEFA. The Zurich feeling seems to be that angered by all this talk of financial fair play the big clubs may like to work with FIFA rather than UEFA.

This could, I suspect, mean more coming from FIFA on developing FIFA club competitions that could be a rival to what UEFA provide. But whatever form it takes it promises to be riveting and providing an entirely new meaning to the old club versus country argument.

Mihir Bose’s latest book: Game Changer How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World has
been published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99

Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose