Opinion

Football killed the racist star

Praba Ganesan

Praba Ganesan is Parti Keadilan Rakyat's Social Media Strategist. He wants to engage with you, and learn from your viewpoints. You can contact him at prabaganesan@hotmail.comor follow him on Twitter @prabaganesan

FEB 2 — “Monkey man” went to jail. Through the use of basic technology and social media, the police identified the man who mimicked an animal to abuse Manchester United’s Patrice Evra last weekend. He has been caught, and the message is eloquently clear to him and others, there is no place for racial abuse in modern society. A football pitch and its stands are part of that civilised society.

It wasn’t funny. It was certainly not dignified. It’s not on.

Unsurprisingly, the whole episode originates from a football face-off of a racial sort. Months ago, Evra accused his fellow footballer and then opponent Liverpool’s Luis Suarez of repeatedly abusing him racially.

There are always two sides to the story, and without besmirching the good names of these two internationals, this column will endeavour to unravel racism not the footballers’ reputations.

To that then.

War without compromise

Football currently is at war against racism. It’s been at it for some time now, and the resolve is only growing stronger. The governing body, FIFA, is of the opinion that racism in any form is unacceptable. Football for decades condoned racism and with full cognisance of that past, the Geneva-based organisation is determined to keep its present universe — where a ball is kicked and people chase it while many watch the spectacle — a human utopia.

In life there cannot be space for hate without a civilised response to it. Football, due to its unique position in our society, has a magnified role, a heightened obligation to respond.

How unique is that position?

It is a global sport, with a monster following. All year round millions fill thousands of stadiums from affluent Chicago to downtrodden Monrovia. Those figures are dwarfed by TV viewership, as channel after channel intravenously feed the ever willing. 

The physicality of sports renders all its episodes to appear larger than life. What football says will affect prevailing attitudes to almost everything.

Malaysians and football

It is a common sight to see 14-year-olds or 41-year-olds walking into warongs or cafes anywhere in this country with a Chelsea top and the name “Drogba” adorned on the back.

Who doesn’t know Didier Drogba? The Ivory Coast captain who scores exquisite and equally goals of athletic excellence. Not known as much is that he funded the building of a hospital in his country’s capital. For him, in his own words, that African facility is his biggest achievement in life.

But it’s his football which clouds the general Malaysian, from limiting him to a racial epithet. He is not reduced to being a black man.

In football, without realising, Malaysians see people not labels.

There is no tokenism, and brilliance is recognised for what it is. Achievements are well regarded and colour meaningless.

Fernando Torres can’t score, even in a brothel, the lads joke at the back of the mamak, and Darren Bent scores wherever he plays.

Malaysians are major participants in fantasy leagues, where they become virtual managers — trading and picking players with a standard budget.

The recurring theme? Malaysians are colour-blind when it comes to their appreciation of foreign football.

…but away from football

However when it comes to issues back home, the spectre of racism rises right to the top. More often than not, race is all that matters in the situation, all other considerations become just peripheral.

For instance, the prime minister is a Manchester United fan. Would he stomach Alex Ferguson naming more Caucasians like himself in the first 11 to represent the racial make-up of Britain?   

The column is of this opinion.

Our sense of fair play is intact. “Our” meaning the general Malaysian.

It appears the poisoned climate here which turns even the most straightforward matter into a convoluted issue of grave consequence to race relations.

It is the context which is mucking up the situation.

The football-crazy Malaysian can see a bad decision a mile away, while flummoxed if something of the same vein occurs in his locality.

It strikes that if the Malaysian can apply a Rawlsian “Veil of Ignorance” — of not knowing what any decision means to the self — using football as a framework, he might come to more equitable decisions unaffected by race.

Applying football think when processing highly-contentious Malaysian issues might give the football fan a more varied understanding of issues, or at least fresh perspective.

When Barnes arrived

It’s a bit of a full circle that the “monkey” man showed up at Anfield. When John Barnes was signed from Watford to become the new Liverpool star, the fans did not take to him initially. It was 1987, black players were rare in top teams and in that instance he was expected to be a headliner.

There were monkey dances and bananas chucked at him during home matches, and he endured everything to become an Anfield legend.

Until last weekend, many thought the days of open display of racism were left behind for good in those parts.

Racism is a deeply imbedded issue, plaguing all society. Many parts of the world have engaged it, and have become the better for it. Malaysians’ love of English football has let them experience — without realising — lessons in fighting racism.

It is a positive not highlighted enough. That Malaysians have become more tolerant through their appreciation of English football’s evolution.

It is just a pity that Malaysians hear from pundits on the sports channel that racism — without qualification or apology — is wrong, rather than from their home-grown politicians.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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