Even those who would never dream of watching a football match – they do exist, these sad souls – must surely be aware that there is added spice to the Manchester United-Liverpool rivalry when they meet today.
The same said football-naysayers must have a vague sense of a row between Manchester United’s Patrice Evra and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez which resulted in the latter getting a hefty ban for racist abuse.
As a result, Evra will have to endure most forms of verbal abuse known to man when he steps out for today’s Cup tie at Anfield. (That’s where Liverpool play, for those who don’t follow football but are still with me).
As he was heading to the team hotel yesterday, possibly musing on the subject of racism, so was I, having been asked to write a foreword to the autobiography of a player called Roger Eli.
Now I know Roger won’t take it amiss if I say even serious football fans may struggle to recall the name. He played mainly in the lower leagues and had a career beset (that’s the word that always goes with injuries in the sports pages) by injuries but who found his best days playing for my beloved (the word always used to describe Burnley when the papers mention my support of them) Burnley.
The reason he is relevant to Evra and Suarez is that part of Roger’s story was the abuse he and other black players had to take as part of the job of being a non-white pro footballer in the late 80s and early 90s.
Changing culture takes time. And it takes activism. And it takes people prepared to put their heads above the parapet and say what is right and what is wrong. There is less racism in football than there used to be. The active campaigns on that front have helped bring that about. There is less racism in society than there used to be. But it still lurks and lingers and the campaign for a truly non racist Britain has not been won. Indeed Doreen Lawrence, mother of murdered teenager Stephen, makes that point in The Guardian today, and questions the current government’s understanding of the issue, and its commitment properly to tackle it.
When Evra hears the insults raining down on his head today, he may or may not be able to block them from his mind. But afterwards, when not just the match but in later years when his career is over, he ought to take pride in having stood up for himself and in so doing stood up for others without a voice or the platform that football gives him. He was under a lot of pressure – not least from the absurd Sepp Blatter, laughably the senior official in the game – to ‘let it go,’ ‘shake on it,’ ‘put it down to the heat of the moment and the passion of the game.’ He didn’t, and even though he ‘won’ his battle, he has paid a price, which is another reason he deserves applause not abuse for what he did.
There must surely be a day when racism is studied in schools for what it says about what we were not what we are. We’re not there yet. But if and when we do get there, Manchester United’s left back will be able to say he played his part in the journey.
I don’t know if Patrice Evra has read, or heard of, Edmund Burke. But in acting as he did, he certainly seemed conscious of one of the greatest political and cultural sayings of all time, Burke’s ‘All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.’
Now if United’s legendarily creative songsmith Pete Boyle could turn that into a chant, I’d be impressed. In the meantime stand by for plenty of ‘you’ll never walk alone,’ and abuse of Evra from the home fans, chants against Suarez from the away fans, but hopefully once the noise is gone, a small step further down the road to a non-racist Britain.