Mihir Bose: Football racism; personal or institutional?

You may think, if you live in England, enough has been said about Sol Campbell’s extraordinary claim that had he been white he would been an automatic choice as England captain. Despite all those who have rubbished his claims he remains adamant, as he told me, that the colour of his face, as opposed to that of Michael Owen, just did not fit with the FA. All Campbell will budge on was that he did not mean to say he would have led the national side for ten years as originally reported but for a long time during the ten year period he played for his country.

The response to Campbell’s claim has been, and this includes some black players who have worn the captain’s arm band, that his charge of racism is plain nonsense. And that Campbell is peddling a myth merely to sell copies of his book. Indeed, in making the racist claim Campbell has opened himself up to a damaging counter charge. This is that not having written the book when he was at the height of his playing career but having waited to tell his story after his career was over, towards the end of which he even played for Notts County in a League Two match in Morecambe, he needed something to sell his book. So he seized on race knowing it would make all the right headlines.

Having met the man I think to accuse Campbell of such mercenary thoughts would be wide of the mark. Campbell may have taken a long time to tell his story but I can well believe his claim that he needed to compose himself and get a lot of things out of the way before he was ready to talk. The fact that he choose a novelist and not a journalist as most footballers do to tell his story also counts in his favour. The only other prominent sportsman to do so was Andre Agassi and while Campbell’s book may not win the awards Agassi did it is a cut above most players’ stories.

What must also be taken into account is that here is man who has had a lot to get over. As he says, he sometimes wonders how he got out of his surroundings. As the last child in a Jamaican immigrant family, he was five years younger than his next brother and grew up feeling very lonely and isolated. “It’s massive,” he says. “You catch up later on when you’re 25, 30, but at that age it’s like a different galaxy really. You’re zero and your next brother’s five years old. It’s huge. Sometimes I say to myself, I don’t know how I got out. But that shows how I preserve things and look after things.”

And then there was a father who never cared that he played football, let alone celebrate his son’s achievements, or even showed his son any love. In many others this would have produced vitriol but Campbell can show a remarkable understanding of how his father behaved. “You’ve got to see,” he says, “the environment he’s from, from Jamaica, back end of colonialism, how harsh that could have been and how that can affect someone’s mind and how they look upon life. You’ve got to be a very special person to have all those things around you and still look at life as a lovely kind of picture. He’s over here, he has to make a living, it’s very difficult with my mother. Like a lot of people who came over from the Caribbean and India, it was very tough for them, so they had to make do. They had to worry about where the next pound was coming from. Maybe his father was like that and that’s how you got on. That’s how you got people to survive. You had to kind of not show love but had to be strong and that’s with everybody. I think even some English were like that back in those days as well. So it doesn’t really surprise me that he was like that. But he tried to do the best with what he’d got and what he’d been through.”

By the time Campbell, the last child, arrived the world had changed but Campbell, full of understanding, says of his father, “When you get to that age you don’t want to change. You say why should I change, I’ve survived this long and this is how I’ve always done it and why should I change? As I said in the book, I forgive him and totally understand. He did the best he could.”

So if he can forgive his father and understand the world he came from why cannot he forgive or at least understand how the FA treated him? And this is where we come to the basic problem with the Campbell allegation. As far as he is concerned he suffered what white people in Africa may suffer. Or as he put it to me, “You’ve got to look at it this way. Take an African country which has a kid who’s white. He grows up to be a wonderful player and wants to be captain. I can understand it might not sit easy with the majority black people.”

What the former England defender is saying is that what he suffered from is institutional racism. And this where I think Campbell is wrong. For we need to distinguish between institutional racism and personal racism. That this difference is often forgotten is not surprising but it reflects a sad ignorance of history.

The fact is that until fairly recently institutional racism was a fact of life. The European empires, which did not properly dissolve until well in to the 1960s, were built on the central idea that the white races were the superior races and had the right to rule over the non-whites in perpetuity. And it was also only in the 1960s, more than a century after the Americans had fought a civil war over the abolition of slavery, that blacks in the deep south got the vote. That happened after the world’s greatest democracy, following a long struggle and much anguish and many deaths, passed legislation allowing all its citizens, whatever their colour, to vote. But for some three decades after such state sponsored racism had been consigned to the dustbin of history, the existence of the white regime in South Africa, which let us remind ourselves was long supported by many of the western powers, meant institutional racism was alive and well. You could say that on the global stage institutional racism was finally abolished in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa in the first free elections where people of all races in South Africa could take part.

But if the state no longer allows people to legally discriminate on the grounds of colour that does not mean there is no individual racism. And I believe what Campbell is talking about is not institutional racism but personal racism.

I can see why Campbell should have confused the two. Let us not forget that it was only in the late 70s that black players were even considered ready to play football at the highest level. Viv Anderson, the first to break the glass ceiling, did not do so until 1978. Even then, and for a long time afterwards, black players suffered horrific abuse when playing for their clubs and we all know of the famous example of some England supporters refusing to accept John Barnes wonderful goal against Brazil because he was black. Indeed as late as the 90s only a handful of black players had played for Manchester United, prompting pub quiz questions about how many blacks United had ever fielded. All this is within living memory and Campbell, who is the generation after Barnes and Anderson, would have heard such stories and also suffered from some personal abuse as well.

Since then both the government and the football authorities, having initially refused to accept there was a racist problem, have done much to try and deal with it. This has included passing legislation to outlaw racist behaviour. To say they have not would be unfair but also to pretend that they have got rid of racism would be stupid. For if as I believe we do not have institutional racism in this country, we do have individual racism. This is difficult to police and almost impossible to eradicate.

You can make sure through laws that nobody is discriminated against. What you cannot do is make people shed their prejudices and treat everybody fairly, let alone like everybody. So just because a black person in a predominantly white world does not get a job does not mean that he or she has been discriminated against because of their colour. There could be a whole host of factors where colour may also have played a part but perhaps not even the crucial one.

This distinction needs to be borne in mind. And in this debate about racism we are forgetting it.

This does not mean racist behaviour should not be highlighted and stamped upon. But to see every example of racism as a systems failure when it might be a human failure would be a mistake. And such an attitude would harm, not help, the fight against racism. This is very important because this is a fight which, like the vigilance we need to preserve our freedoms, must by its very nature be a perpetual one.

Sol Campbell The Authorised Biography by Simon Astaire is published by Spellbinding Media, priced £18.99.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose