There are many within the football establishment here in England who take pride in their efforts to drag the game (sometimes kicking and screaming) into the 21st century. Some of the administrators, campaigners and plain good citizens of the game who have given their time and passion to this cause deserve great credit. As a result of their efforts, football matches are now safer and more family-friendly (albeit ridiculously expensive) spectacles.
However, events during the past few weeks have dealt a real blow to this sense of progress. To bring you up to date, the chairman of a league club embarked on a racist and anti-Semitic tirade for which he is reluctant to apologise. And this comes after said chairman recently hired a new team manager who has also been accused of projecting a stream of racist, sexist and homophobic invective during a previous job.
The chairman in question is Wigan Athletic’s Dave Whelan, who has long been regarded as one of the great characters of English football. A talented player forced out of the game early through injury, he first rebuilt his life as a businessman and then restored the fortunes of his hometown club with the fruits of that entrepreneurial success. But there are apologists for Whelan; theirs is a deeply unpleasant complacency about these outmoded attitudes. It is almost as if the culture of the game encourages people to forgive a “real character” of his faults. But these are not mere foibles: they are ideas and expressions absolutely out of step with the values of the country.
The sense of an approaching moral crisis rising up in the UK’s favourite sport is made more concrete by recent events surrounding another footballer; Welsh international player Ched Evans. He was enjoying a successful career at Sheffield United when he was accused, tried and convicted of raping a young woman at a hotel. Evans has consistently denied the offence and following his recent release from prison he has sought to resume his career. Following an outraged response from fans and media alike, that comeback will no longer be happening at Bramall Lane. But some of the most disturbing aspects of the story (beyond of course the distress of the victim) have been the outdated attitudes surfacing from some of the dinosaurs still roaming around the game.
The final depressing salvo of last week was served up by England’s fans, who were at Parkhead for a “friendly” against Scotland. They decided it would be entertaining to regale their hosts – and the watching world let’s not forget – with a rendition of anti-IRA chanting. How very enlightened.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of these cases, the English game must ensure that it acts in accordance with the modern, cosmopolitan and liberal attitudes it purports to hold. Platitudes about inclusivity and tolerance are meaningless if key figures in football are not held to account for their actions.
Tom Edwards is executive producer of Monocle 24.