Sepp Blatter may believe the furore he provoked by his comments on racism in football is behind him. He could not be more mistaken. He will have to live with the consequences of his absurd comment that if there is racism on the field of play it can be got rid of by a post-match hand shake.
Worse still, the damage he has done to FIFA, when the organisation is already so beleaguered, cannot be overestimated.
If proof of this was needed it came in the most unlikely setting. Let me sketch the scene for you.
It is a gala dinner night in the ballroom of a smart central London hotel, a few hundred yards from the Houses of Parliament. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister of Britain, is the chief guest, there are any number of high ranking British military personnel, all with their medals gleaming on their chests, and the drink is flowing. Everyone has gathered to honour the high achievers in the Asian community and this is not a night where sport is high on the agenda, let alone football.
But how does the evening start?
The compère, the BBC’s Clive Myrie, makes a joke presentation to Sepp Blatter for his comments on racism and makes fun of his initials SB. Now, what makes this particularly striking is this is an evening meant to celebrate diversity in Britain, to demonstrate how well people from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds have overcome prejudice and made the most of what this country has to offer. Against such a background, Blatter is presented as leading an organisation that is, if not racist, certainly very out of touch with the modern world.
What makes all this worse is that Blatter does not seem to realise he has managed to make FIFA look bad in the one field where it can be proud of its record. Here, I am very much in agreement with Vinnie Jones. Jones, now a Hollywood movie star, may have been the bad boy of football when it came to violence on and off the field, but he knows all about how bad racism was in Britain in his playing days in the 80s and 90s. He has vivid memories of the banana throwing at black players and how he had to protect his fellow Wimbledon player and room-mate John Fashanu from racists.
The motto of Jones and his white team mates was to shield Fashanu. As he told me, if racists wanted to attack him, “the boys would get round him and shield him. To get to him, you have to go through us.” Like most of the world, he feels Blatter’s comments were “absolutely ridiculous”, but he does add, “what I will say is he has made one stupid comment, but he has been pushing and pushing to stamp racism out of football. FIFA’s record is not bad.”
Indeed it is not. FIFA has yet to demonstrate that it can be a transparent, accountable organisation with good corporate governance, but before Blatter opened his mouth FIFA could argue with some conviction that when it comes to combating racism, it has often shown the way. Its record on this is certainly a lot better than most other international sports organisations.
This is worth emphasising as the cricket world celebrates the life and times of Basil D’Oliveira (pictured right), the Cape Coloured cricketer unable to play for his country because of its racist sporting edicts. He had to come to England to fulfil his potential. But when chosen for England’s 1968 tour of South Africa, the then white South African Prime Minister, John Vorster, said an England team with D’Oliveira would not be allowed and the tour was cancelled.
This was not the first time white South Africans had assumed the role of super selectors for their opponents. This meant they not only insisted on playing white countries, but made it clear that these countries could not select their non-white citizens. So New Zealand’s All Black rugby team had to leave its Māori players at home when they toured South Africa. Before going on the 1949 tour, the New Zealand rugby union even announced that “much as it regretted, players to be selected to tour South Africa cannot be other than wholly European”. On that tour, the All Blacks also did not perform the feared Haka as they had no Māoris. And even before D’Oliveira, the South Africans had forced English cricket to drop Duleepsinhji, then the best batsman in England. He may have been a prince, but he had the wrong colour, he was an Indian.
However, and this is the significant point, the cricket and rugby authorities happily accepted such diktats. Even after the D’Oliveira affair, English cricket was all ready to welcome the white South Africans to this country in 1970, and it required intervention by the Labour Government to stop the tour. And rugby, to its eternal shame, never gave up its links with white South Africa let alone ban it from international rugby.
Contrast this with football. FIFA was the first major sports organisation to suspend South Africa in 1963, even before the Olympic Movement. This followed an extraordinary suggestion by South Africa. As white and black could not mix on the sporting field, they had proposed that for one World Cup a wholly white team would play, and then four years later, a wholly black team.
The expulsion of South Africa was achieved despite the opposition to then FIFA President, Stanley Rous (pictured), who after a visit to South Africa was keen to bring South Africa back. Rous felt those working against apartheid sport were communists who had no feel for football. The white South Africans had told Rous during his visit that the non-Europeans were, “uneducated and not fit to assume positions of authority in any sphere of life”. Rous was so impressed by this argument that he got the FIFA Executive to remove the ban, although in the end FIFA Congress overturned the decision. This led to complaints by Rous about too much democracy in FIFA and the baleful influence of the one country one vote principle, diluting the historic importance of countries like England.
FIFA’s stance on South Africa became very much stronger when João Havelange took over as President from Rous. As his general secretary, Blatter not only made sure the policy did not stray, but racism in other countries was also addressed. And FIFA has continued this policy since he became President.
The tragedy is that no one will now care for this history of good work. Blatter, who loves being the showman and always delights in his quips, has indulged in his one sound bite too many means. The result is the world, like Clive Myrie, will concentrate on his moment of stupidity, and for all the regrets he has expressed, he will not able to undo the harm he has done.