Football, Racism and Tragedy

The tragedy of Fabrice Muamba, which is now thankfully turning out to be far less of a tragedy that it could have been, has brought some fantastic aspects of football, and sport in general into light. I know a lot of people who dislike sport, “on principle”, and it kind of makes me sad to know that it takes an in-game heart attack for the great parts of sport to appear in the professional version of the most popular game in the world.

  1. Sport brings people together.
    It kind of goes without saying, at least within teams. A team of players come together to perform their best and push themselves to their limits. But it also brings spectators together: anyone who’s ever stood in the stands will know how that works.
    But sport does more than that. At the amateur level, it’s a fantastic way of meeting people, of staying fit, keeping healthy, and of developing a better appreciation of other people. Sport is inherently non-partisan, there’s no choice who might be in your league, and for most amateur players it’s in your best interests to get on with your team mates and opponents alike.
  2. Sport is a true meritocracy.
    This isn’t always true. At a coaching level the old tropes about institutionalised racism still abound, and of the major sports only American football has done something about it, with brilliant and beautiful consequences. But players earn their salary by performing, not by the colour of their skin. And that’s good.
    Fabrice Muamba is a perfect case in point. He entered the country at eleven without speaking a word of English, and was a hero at Bolton long before his name became synonymous with Saturday’s incident. He’s only ever played for English national sides, having identified as English since the day he arrived here. He represents everything immigration is supposed to be about – cultures coming together and melding into one, until the only national distinction is geographical, not cultural.
  3. Sport draws out the best in people.
    One need only look at the #prayformuamba hash tag to see people, often traditionally rivals, come together. The message is clear: the man, a life, a livelihood, is more important than the game. It’s an admirable message, and one I can only wholeheartedly support. It is this humility that allows sport to be so great, a combination of high drama, and the knowledge that the result is less important than the game itself.
But for each of these highs, the Muamba case reminds me of all of the things we still need to do. All of the improvements we still need to make. All of the ways in which my lofted ideals fall short in reality:
  1. Sport pulls people apart.
    How, in sport, can there still be Old Firm hatred in the city of Glasgow? Rivalry is fantastic, and caring about the result is great, but violence? I have seen internet commenters saying the most hateful things, simply because the topic in question concerns a rival club. I’m a Liverpool fan, and when they aren’t playing us, I back Everton: they’re a great side with a manager who ensures they always punch above their weight.
  2. Sport is not a meritocracy.
    Name one openly gay footballer. I’ll give you a moment.

    Okay, time’s up. Anton Hysen. Heard of him? Probably not, he’s in the fourth division of Swedish professional football. He is the only openly gay footballer in professional football. And there’s no reason why he should be the only one beyond an institutionalised and, frankly, medieval homophobia which still holds the game in thrall. We still have a long way to go.
    Outside of football, the very papers who are celebrating Muamba (rightly) as a beacon of British pride, would be treating him as the worst kind of scum. After all, he arrived in England aged 11 with no English whatsoever. The Mail, the Express, the Sun; all of these would be livid at the idea he were even able to enter the country had he not developed a talent worth tens of thousands of pounds a week.

  3. Sport draws out the worst in people
    Luis Suarez, John Terry, Salman Butt, to name a few. Institutionalised hatred: see points 1 and 2 above.
The goal is there, we just have to reach it. I look forward to a day when sport can be competitive without being damaging, and passionate without being hateful.
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