Tag Archives: football

L’affaire Anelka draws towards a climax

Nicolas Anelka’s case to be heard next weekThe three-man independent regulatory panel’s hearing is expected to last several days. West Brom’s French striker faces a minimum five-match ban after being charged by the FA with performing an alleged anti-Semitic gesture during his club’s match against West Ham on December 28. The 34-year-old has denied the gesture was anti-Semitic and requested a personal hearing. I wrote a blog on L’affaire Anelka a few weeks ago. Now, as the case draws towards a climax, I reproduce it …

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It’s often assumed that people who are part of a group victimized by history are somehow immune from the bigotry that drives their assailants. A naive assumption, perhaps, but one with enough plausibility to make us think twice about accusing people who have been on the receiving end of racism of dishing it out. Of course, we don’t know whether Nicolas Anelka, the French footballer with parents from the Caribbean island Martinique, has ever experienced racism firsthand; but, as a black man, he would surely have been uncomfortably familiar with its effects in Europe and elsewhere. And, having played in England on-and-off since aged 17 (he signed for Arsenal in 1997), he would be aware that racism has been one of the most bedevilling problems in English and, for that matter, European football for several years. Yet he stands accused by the Football Association (FA) of an offence, which, if not exactly the same as racism, is certainly on the same continuum. In the unlikely event that some readers are not au fait with the Anelka affair, let me offer a brief summary: Anelka is a personal friend of a Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a French comedian who is also black and is notorious for what some believe is antisemitic humour. Last December, Anelka, playing for West Bromwich Albion, celebrated scoring a goal by making a a gesture in which he thrust out his right arm and tapped it with his left hand (see the photograph above). No one in England knew the meaning of the behaviour, but it soon came to light: it is called a quenelle and has been popularized by Dieudonné. The probability is that Anelka gestured to show his solidarity with his controversial friend, currently under pressure from French authorities. The Football Association has been sorely exercised for the past two years by the reappearance of racism in football and decided to investigate the possible meanings of Anelka’s signal.  After three weeks of deliberations, the FA charged Anelka with making a gesture that is “abusive and/or indecent and/or insulting and/or improper.” We don’t yet know the full content of the accusation or Anelka’s apparent rebuttal, but it seems fair to conclude that Anelka will resist any claims that he intended to make a sign that would be offensive to anyone, including Jews, and he was signalling a more common attitude of defiance against authority, or what many people call the establishment.

“The object Dieudonné’s satire is an Establishment dominated, as he sees it, by Jews, who have secured positions of power and insulated themselves against criticism

Before we go further, let’s pause to consider this term establishment. It typically takes a capital E and refers to a group in society exercising power and influence of matters of policy, or even taste, and seen as resisting change. The concept of an Establishment was popular in the 1960s when a rebellious spirit coursed through society, leaving no aspect of life unchanged. Figures such as Martin Luther King (1929-68), James Dean (1931-55), Che Guevera (1928-67) could all, in very different ways, be described as anti-Establishment. Dieudonné would presumably align himself with comedians like Lenny Bruce (1925-66) and Bill Hicks (1961-94), both of whom achieved a kind of infamy. But the object Dieudonné’s satire is an Establishment dominated, as he sees it, by Jews, who have secured positions of power and insulated themselves against criticism. This is not a worldview derived from conspiracy theories, though it’s not totally inconsistent with theories, such as those promulgated by the Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion, an monstrously spurious document that purported to reveal a plan for world domination. Anelka has followed Dieudonné in rejecting accusations of antisemitism, by which he presumably means he has no hostility towards Jews. Dieudonné is, on his own account, critical of Zionism, which was originally a political movement, launched in 1897, for the establishment and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel. It’s predicated on a distinct Jewish identity and culture and, in some versions, opposes integration. Its critics interpret this exclusivity as a form of racism. So the complexities of the Anelka case multiply: a black man is accused of issuing a gesture that may be antisemitic, but which he claims is anti-Establishment. On closer examination, the Establishment he opposes appears to be a particular arrangement rather than the more generic society.  Anelka has used Facebook to defend himself, marshalling the support of prominent Jewish leaders to argue the quenelle is not an antisemitic gesture and that he didn’t intend them to be interpreted as such.

“Very few people own up to being antisemitic, anti-Islam, anti-Arab or anti-anything

My fellow member of  the British Sociological Association’s Race & Ethnicity Study Group/Forum Leon Moosavi, of the University of Liverpool, accepts this and points out that the gesture is not imbued with what he calls a “coherent meaning.” It’s a fair point. But gestures, signs and symbols can acquire coherence if they are used in a particular way and, however ambiguous the gesture might have been, there is no denying the quenelle has been used outside synagogues, at Auschwitz, in front of the Jewish school where Toulouse gunman Mohamed Merah killed three children, by signs for rue du Four (Oven Street) and rue des Juifs (Jews’ Street) and in front of the trains that transported French Jews to the concentration camps. Even in the improbable event that Anelka was not aware of the antisemitic connotations of the sign, is his intention a defence? Forum member Brendan McGeever, a doctoral candidate at University of Glasgow, thinks that, while intent should be considered, the reception of signs, representations and so on is just as if not more important. Author Tom Wengraf is even more dismissive of Anelka’s stated intentions because very few people own up to being antisemitic, anti-Islam, anti-Arab or anti-anything. But that “doesn’t mean that we can’t claim (with good evidence)  that they are, despite their occasionally sincere words.” Deeds are more powerful than words in this instance, reckons Wengraf. Aaron Winter, of the University of Abertay, points out that, while the term anti-Establishment historically has associations with rebelliousness and insurgency and sounds progressive, even revolutionary, the term has “floated to the right.” In other words, the term is vulnerable to hijacking by groups that have far-from revolutionary agendas. Criticism can be easily absorbed and turned into evidence. So groups that believe powerful minorities control society have a tendency to explain attacks against their own views as proof of the validity of those views; so there is a kind of self-corroborating logic at work. Anelka is not the first prominent black figure to be involved in an incident like this. In 1986, US civil rights activist Jesse Jackson (1941-), who had campainged alongside Martin Luther King, was embarrassed after making offensive remarks that purportedly poked fun at Jews. Al Sharpton (1954-) has had to defend himself several times against accusations of antitsemitism. Louis Farrakhan (1933-), the Black Muslim leader, became notorious in 1984 when he spoke of Judaism as “a dirty religion.” Anelka himself converted to Islam in 2004 and bears the Islamic name Abdul Salam Bilal Anelka, though he has no known affiliation with Farrakhan’s organization.

“Issues of race, religion, culture and multiple prejudices will be addressed

Kick It Out chairman Lord Ouseley has criticised both the FA and West Bromwich Albion for their lack of quick action. The club perhaps might have asked Anelka to clarify his intentions in public, but has otherwise acted properly in refusing to react in a way that could have prejudiced subsequent investigations. And the FA has sensibly taken time to gather evidence and seek advice before deciding to charge Anelka. This is a much more complicated case than those that ended in the punishment of John Terry and Luis Suárez. It is a tangle of thorns; many people will get spiked.  If — as we expect — Anelka is fined and suspended for eight or more games (Suárez was banned for eight games and fined £40,000), he will likely appeal and implicate the FA in an unseemly legal conflict that is sure to outlast Anelka’s stay at his present club. The conflict will be forced to address issues of race, religion, culture and multiple prejudices.





Sir Alex’s torment

“The big problem for me … he fell in love”

I remember getting a call in my hotel room in Manchester in February, 2003. It was from a radio station that wanted me to go on air to talk about David Beckham’s fraying relationship with the then manager of his club Manchester United, Alex Ferguson. “Why? What’s happened?” I asked. “Apparently Ferguson has cut Beckham’s eye.” It became known as the “flying boot incident.” Ferguson had vented his rage at Beckham after an FA Cup tie against Arsenal and, for some reason, kicked a stray boot, which flew through the air and collided with Beckham’s face. With his typical flair for dramatizing small incidents, Beckham wore his hair fastened back with an Alice band so that the wound – treated with steri-strips – was clearly visible. The professional relationship between the two men had probably been deteriorating for a while, but this was the first tangible evidence. I could only speculate on radio that this was probably the beginning of the end. Ferguson was irritated that the player had become a focus of more media attention than Manchester United. One can only imagine what torment Victoria caused him: it seems she was pulling her husband in many directions, all of them wrong from Ferguson’s perspective. If she wasn’t taking him to Lenny Kravitz’s birthday bash, she was displaying him on the front row of Giorgio Armani’s new launch or introducing him to her friends Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. For the hard-bitten Glaswegian, it must have been purgatory.

Ferguson’s new autobiography confirms what we all knew about his loss of patience with Beckham, though at the press conference to accompany the book’s publication, Ferguson let slip arguably an even more interesting insight: “The big problem for me [was] he fell in love with Victoria and that changed everything.” Read that again: the big problem for Ferguson was that Beckham fell in love with Victoria. This is exactly the kind of blunderingly insensitive remark that earns Ferguson respect from many people, who regard him as a kind of master of the dark arts of psychology. But is he?  He’s a good … no great football manager, perhaps the best there’s ever been, but he can also be boorish, crass and frequently shows no feeling or concern for others. How unfortunate for Ferguson that Beckham met a woman, fell in love, had children and became a celebrity athlete on par with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Beckham, writes Ferguson in the book, thought “he was bigger than Sir Alex Ferguson.” The very idea, eh? “The name of the manager is irrelevant. The authority is what counts.” Football fans might argue that successful managers have to be authoritarian in the sense that they need obedience from players at the expense of personal freedoms. But this statement sounds like it comes from someone who can’t bear the prospect of one of his minions having the temerity to challenge him or even occupy other people’s attention. When Ferguson writes, “I could see him being swallowed up by the media or publicity agents.” You wonder what irked him more: the fact that Beckham was distracted by the lure of celebritydom, or that global interest in Posh and Becks, as the couple was then known, eclipsed interest in either the club or Ferguson. There was clearly a clash of egos at the club and, with no prospect of limiting Beckham’s celebrity ambitions or prising him away from Victoria, Ferguson’s only option was to release him. Beckham transferred to Real Madrid within months of the flying boot incident. Ferguson regards this as a “shame because he could still have been at Manchester United when I left. He would have been one of the greatest Man United legends.” We’re all sure he could too. But instead he became just a common or garden global icon.


Should we boycott next year’s Winter Olympics?

Stephen Fry up

Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected actor Stephen Fry’s request to boycott next year’s Winter Olympics in protest at Russia’s homophobic laws.

Vladimir Putin’s new legislation allows for the imposition of heavy fines for anyone providing information about homosexuality to people under the age of eighteen. The Russian city Sochi hosts the games.  Athletes have been warned they’ll be penalized if they “propagandise” on the issue.  The probability is that there will be no boycott and that the controversy will resurface again as we approach the 2018 football World Cup, which will be held in Russia.  By then it’s probable there will be several openly gay footballers.

As with any boycott, there is a balance of interests.  Athletes aiming to compete at next year’s Games will be training hard and dedicating themselves to winning a medal.  Clearly, none of them – straight or gay – would want to sacrifice their chances.  Any protest over political, social or moral issues risks casualties of this kind. Individuals have their own interests at heart and there is nothing wrong with this.

On the other side of the balance sheet are collective issues, in this case one concerning fundamental human rights.  Gay people are currently stigmatized in Russia.  Like all international sports tournaments, the Winter Olympics presents an almost natural forum for events far removed from sport.

Some people, like Cameron, prioritize individuals’ interests over all others.  He believes it would be wrong to prevent athletes competing in what will probably be their career-high tournament. Fry’s call for a boycott suggests he thinks, if Russia is allowed to proceed in an uninhibited way, the effect will be to condone its attitude towards gay people.

So who is right? The first lesson history teaches us is that sporting protests do work: they force issues often involving prejudice and inequality to the attention of the world and concentrate pressure on offending nations to reconsider their policies, laws and sometimes ideology.

The Gleneagles Agreement of 1977 was instrumental in the eventual fall of South African apartheid in 1990: it effectively ostracized South Africa by prohibiting sporting contacts.

Boycotts usually make headlines and attract the rhetoric of interested parties who talk regretfully about how unfortunate is it that sport and politics have become mixed-up.  In fact, sports and politics are not just mixed-up, but entwined so closely that they will never be separated: sport is an effective vehicle for promoting or publicizing causes, principles and aims, aswell as full-blown ideologies. Presumably, this was on the minds of Black September when it planned what turned into a bloodbath. The group’s demands for the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners were not met, precipitating a sequence of killing at the Munich Olympics of 1972. The massacre was horrific and condemned almost universally, but it made the condition of Palestinians known to the world.

Earlier at the 1968 Olympics, there had been an iconic moment when African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos wore black berets and gloves and bowed their heads on the victory rostrum while the US national anthem played. At the time they were decried as unpatriotic and hounded out of sport.  Now they are revered as the men who made America’s prejudice against black people known to the world and in their own way made their imprint on history.

There are those who will argue that we could find fault with the host of practically any major sports competition.  Remember, Britain, which held last year’s Olympics, is not without critics. So when we consider protests, we have to think in terms of a political or moral triage, assigning degrees of urgency to issues, some of which demand more immediate attention than others.  The gay issue in Russia does, in my opinion, require attention.  Gay people are, we understand, habitually persecuted in a nation with a population of 143 million, and where the attitude towards homosexuality is basically the result of a hangover from the Soviet Union combined with Putin’s crass and populist ideology.  I respect the rights of the athletes who will defend their freedom to choose whether or not to attend and compete in the games.  But they should ask themselves whether they would be complicit in perpetuating a social and political arrangement that is morally repugnant.