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Tactically Naive: Racism’s ugly head remains obnoxiously reared

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The racist abuse directed at Antonio Rüdiger during Chelsea’s match against Tottenham Hotspur is depressing. And it’s more depressing by being not at all surprising.

Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea FC - Premier League Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

Trent Alexander-Arnold at Old Trafford. Fred at the Etihad. And rounding out a dismal trilogy this Sunday, Antonio Rüdiger. Three high-profile players playing in high-profile games, broadcast on national television. All three racially abused by members of the home crowd.

As per UEFA’s new protocols for dealing with such matters, Rüdiger told his captain, Cesar Azpilicueta, who in turn told the referee. Three announcements were made over the Tottenham Stadium’s PA system, and the game was briefly paused. That was it as far as in-game censure went, though Spurs have promised a full investigation and “the strongest possible action against any individual found to be behaving in such a way, including stadium bans”.

If you were looking for consolation, you might find it in the fact these were individuals acting individually: England’s crowds haven’t regressed back to the massed monkey noises of the 1970s.

But then, even the actions of an individual can reflect on the wider collective. A man sitting at home hurling racist invective at the television is nobody’s problem but his own, and the poor bastards condemned to spend Christmas with him. But stadiums are shared places: individuals coming together to create communities. Which is to say, there was a person making monkey noises, with accompanying actions. And there were some other people stood next to him. And the former happened despite the presence of the latter.

Perhaps all the Spurs fans around the unidentified monkey chanter were too busy shouting non-racist abuse at Rüdiger to notice. But it certainly seems that the Premier League’s vocally racist fans feel pretty comfortable getting up and doing their thing. Perhaps the seething hate overrides all other concerns. But too often, it seems, the environment in the stands is tacitly tolerant of aggressive intolerance. After all, it’s not like there’s a subtle way to stand up, raise arms to armpits, and make monkey noises. If a player can hear them, their neighbour can too.

As for the environment beyond the stands? Well, it’s a pretty good time to be a loud racist in the UK. The Prime Minister’s got your back. Most of the newspapers, however diligently their sports sections might condemn where appropriate, have got the PM’s back and yours as well. Hate crimes spiked after the Brexit vote in 2016 and, anecdotally at least, something similar is happening after the recent general election. And the malignant shifting sands of the wider discourse are there for the British racist as well.

With bleakly comic timing, the abuse of Rüdiger followed an extremely unedifying, entirely confected row centred on the grime musician Stormzy, almost certainly a top-10 living Brit. His comments on racism in British society — in summary: still existent, widely denied — were first grotesquely misreported, then widely pilloried by the red-faced splittle-flecked defenders of the nation, many of them well-paid, blue-ticked, and in possession of opinion columns and bully-pulpits. Britain? Racist? How dare you. How about a little gratitude, Mr. Stormzy? Would you rather have been raised in Ghana?

And then, come the evening, his point was proved live on television. First the racism, then the hamfisted interjection from Sky Sports’ presenter, desperately scrambling for some imagined neutral ground. Desperately seeking to protect the institution from anything that might resemble picking a side.

Premier League stadiums are not perfect representations of society: they tend to skew male, and middle-aged, and the tickets aren’t cheap. But they are certainly places where society expresses itself, and right now, with depressing regularity, they are deeply unpleasant places for any person of colour going about their business.

The fact they exist in a country which clearly has no intention of confronting its wider problems with racism suggests that this potential for unpleasantness will continue, until the football authorities find some way of overcoming the inadequate social stigma and quietening the abusers before the fact, not afterwards. The threat of three polite announcements and a post hoc ban doesn’t seem to be doing the trick.