"Passing laws isn’t going to change people’s perceptions" - John Barnes on racism in football
John Barnes has experienced the most thrilling of highs and the most traumatic of lows as a footballer
His experiences have helped him form strong views on the game, views that he is not afraid to voice. Barnes, an ambassador for Bonus Code Bets, spoke exclusively to JOE to discuss the changing nature of racism within football, and the progress of the current England squad.
John Barnes is one of England’s all-time great flair players. His mazy dribbling and wand of a left foot made him a joy to watch. His first ever England goal is the perfect example of that talent on show. In the iconic Maracanã stadium, he zig-zagged through Brazilian players like a vespa through rush hour traffic, before slotting the ball past a helpless goalkeeper.
But that tour of South America in 1984 is not a fond memory for Barnes, whose experience was tarnished by the racist abuse he suffered on the outbound flight.
“They [members of the National Front - once one of the largest far-right groups in Europe but now little more than a tiny mob] were following us wherever we went. We went to Uruguay, Chile and Brazil, they were there,” Barnes recalls.
And when it comes to tackling racism today, Barnes believes that there has not been as much progress made as some would like to believe, and that the abuse has simply taken a more veiled form.
“A lot of the press men now making a big stand against racism and discrimination, I don’t know why they didn’t say anything then and now they’re jumping on the bandwagon of how terrible it was. If it’s terrible now, why wasn’t it terrible then?" he ponders.
“I have no sympathy with people jumping on the bandwagon, who kept their mouths shut back then. That’s the way it was, and people accepted it.”
Some might argue that the more vocal opposition to discrimination within the game from the media is a sign of progress, but Barnes is not convinced that the country has come as far as some think.
“First of all, how many black managers are there? What has football actually done? The situation we have is that in terms of overt racism, with racist chants and slogans, yes they’re dealing with that. But in terms of the reality of discrimination, it hasn’t actually changed. Black ex-players and managers aren’t being given opportunities.”
There is of course no simple solution to racism, nor is it an issue unique to football, but one reflective of wider society.
“It’s not just football, it’s society. Only through education, we can let people know why they feel the way they do about people of different cultures, people of different nationalities and different races. Very similar to how we’ve changed our views on women, homosexuals, in terms of what we’ve learned over the last 100 years, only through education can we make that change.”
Barnes strongly objects to people attempting to absolve themselves of any responsibility by asserting that racism only exists within the vacuum of football matches. He points out the lack of black journalists working in mainstream media, and the lack of a prominent debate about the issue.
“It’s not football’s problem and until we recognise that there is discrimination, not just in football, nothing will change.”
Sulley Muntari and Kevin Prince Boateng are just two of several black footballers to have walked off the pitch as a stand against the racist abuse they were receiving from the crowd, both cases which took place in Italy. But Barnes does not believe this reaction serves to help the cause.
“Walking off the pitch is not going to solve anything. You have think of a way to stop people wanting to do that [racially abuse them].”
“Passing laws isn’t going to change people’s perceptions. You have to change the way people think, because whatever law you pass, there’s going to be another way for them to show their discrimination.”
Treat the cause of the disease, not the symptom, basically.
It is rarer and rarer to see players abused with racial epithets in modern English football - but abuse comes in more veiled, less obvious forms within stadiums these days. Barnes explains: “There are ways of showing it without it being illegal. So, if a black player gets the ball, and everybody boos, that’s not racial discrimination, they’re booing the opposition. As much as we know that they’re booing because he’s black, you can’t say 'don’t boo'.”
Raheem Sterling is the most obvious example of a high-profile player who is subject to this, especially in an England shirt, despite his obvious qualities, much like Barnes in Brazil.
He - like many other young black footballers - is consistently the target of tabloid headlines for things as banal as using a budget airline, driving a car, or buying his mother a home, and this scrutiny has regularly boiled over into the stands.
“Sometimes when Raheem Sterling gets the ball, people are accused of racially abusing him because they do it, but just because they’re booing you can’t prove that it’s because he’s black.”
But the treatment of Sterling – and other black England players - has warmed recently. Gone are the “you let your country down” chants that rang around many stadiums in the aftermath of England’s Euro 2016 exit. Gareth Southgate’s newly rejuvenated Lions have rediscovered their roar, which coincidentally seems to have put a dampener on the racially charged abuse.
This too though - the idea that footballing success rather than education of supporters can lead to a reduction in racism - is an uncomfortable reality to confront. Nonetheless, Barnes views the increasing closeness between fans and supporters as only a good thing.
“The biggest difference for me, is the harmony in the ‘England experience’, meaning the relationship they have with the fans. The fans are very supportive of all the players. They don’t discriminate against them – I’m not talking racially – I’m talking about if they play for Liverpool, or United. In the past, there was a disconnect between the fans and the players, whereas now the fans are very supportive of the players.
“I don’t necessarily think that the players get on better with each other than they did in the past, it’s really that the fans and everyone connected with England, including the media, support England.”
Barnes believes this change in attitude derives from the ‘globalisation’ of football, which has led more fans to support the national team with equal passion as they would their club.
“Lots of people now, they don’t support clubs, they support England, whereas in the past, it was just hardcore fans who supported clubs and supported England, but therefore they liked certain players and didn’t like certain players. Now, you’ve got lots of women, you’ve got people who don’t necessarily watch much Premier League football, but they support England. So that’s why they come together when England play.”