Tackling football racism: then and now

Steve BassamLord Steve Bassam of Brighton is Labour's Chief Whip in the Lords and a former Home Office Minister

Ministerial silence on the threat to England supporters posed by racist Nazi supporting Ukrainian football fans is puzzling. Back in 2000 when England fans were seen as a problem across Europe, I was the ‘minister for hooligans’ dispatched to deal with the problems caused by England fans at Euro 2000. The competition was both a fan and footballing disaster for England but it enabled Jack Straw and I to get on the front foot to sort out the problem.

We did so by putting in place tough legislation which effectively prevented football hooligans from travelling abroad. We also took the issue back to the clubs and challenged them to engage more with their fans, and tackle racism and violence. To their credit they did. The police also played a major role by reviewing the way they handled games and set about improving their intelligence based strategy.

Now England fans are perceived as a far more positive force in Europe. Arrest rates abroad in all European cup competitions are at an all time low and the travelling fan base is far more diverse than it was 12 years ago.

Of course, not everything is perfect. The past season’s allegations of racism on the pitch, and the continuing row over Rio Ferdinand's non-selection raise sharp questions about race and football. But at least there is comment, dialogue and engagement on the issues it raises.

All of this makes me wonder why the Government is not doing and saying more about the Ukrainian fans. The pictures of Nazi salutes and fans being beaten should have prompted Home Office ministers and the Sports minister into action. And if those images didn't then Sol Campbell's comments and the response from the families of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should have.

To date however, we have seen or heard little beyond the following statement from sports minister Hugh Robertson, "An enormous amount of preparation has been done by both the FA and the police. The advice to fans remains to take care, read the advice on the Foreign Office website and stick to it. Thereafter we would encourage people to travel and support the England team."

Black footballers have given so much to the British game over the last three decades and they have long played a central part within the England national team. Our government should be insisting on firm action by their counterparts in the Ukraine and the country’s football authorities. We should be seeking commitments that the racists seeking tickets will be prevented from getting them and that any fans making inappropriate chants or fascist salutes will be removed from stadiums by the police.

I don't know whether public order and anti-racist legislation exists in the Ukraine, but if it does we should be raising questions about its proactive use. Longer term, our government and football authorities should be insisting on raising standards in the Ukraine if the national team and club teams are to continue competing in international competitions. This isn't just a parochial issue but a European-wide and indeed global one

If I were a minister now I would be calling for a vetting and barring scheme to be put in place to cover potential travelling Ukrainian fans. This in itself won't end the scourge of racism but it does at least begin the process of challenging lazy thinking towards its tolerance within football. The lesson here in the UK is clear that toleration of racist attitudes won't work as a way of tackling the problem long term. More progress has been made by taking it head on and getting fans, clubs and the governing bodies engaged with one another to take it seriously.

We should never be complacent about racism in sport, least of all football. It is never far away. But if we let the awfulness of what seems to be going on in the Ukraine fester, it will get worse and become a problem that will migrate elsewhere and we will all be the worse for it.

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