Evening Standard

Game on: APSA London, in green, and Bowers & Pitsea line up in east London. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Sepp Blatter has probably never seen a match in the Essex Senior League, but if he did it might give him some insight into racism in football.

The match between London APSA and Bowers & Pitsea, just up the road from Upton Park, starts off well.

The match programme has a full-page advertisement: “Let’s kick racism out of football.” And the two teams appear to be doing just that. London APSA, largely Asian, have a white goalkeeper. The visiting team from Basildon have several black players, and the referee is black.

London APSA hold on for a 2-2 draw. The game is full of that combination of skill, physical rigour and never-say-die spirit that makes English football so compelling.

Yet even before the match kicked off, it had become clear these surface impressions are misleading.

Vince Mcbean, chief executive of Clapton Football Club – whose ground London APSA use for their home games – said bluntly: “It’s not correct that English football has dealt with racism. There are major problems at the grass roots.

“The days of n*****-bashing have gone. Whereas before somebody came up and said, ‘You black bastard,’ they don’t have to say that no more. It’s subtly done now in terms of how the referee deals with us and how the league deals with us.”

The tall, imposing 55-year-old, who came here as a teenager from the Caribbean, served in the Royal Green Jackets, with tours of duty in Ireland, Germany and Canada. “The British Army has changed. Football hasn’t,” he said.

Of the 50 match officials in the league, only three are black and Mcbean believes his team face prejudice when it comes to refereeing decisions.

“We’re frightened to tackle in the box because it’s so simple to give away penalties. Some of the calls that we’ve had against us are not what I call reasonable.”

Essex Senior League chairman Robert Errington was outraged to be asked about the number of black and Asian officials in the league. When I put to him Mr Mcbean’s allegation that black players could not get fair treatment from white officials, he exploded: “It is a disgraceful thing for him to say.”

Zulfi Ali, president of London APSA, has a better impression of the Essex FA and of Mr Errington, both of whom were very supportive when he moved the club from the Asian League to the Essex Senior League in 2003.

But Mr Ali, 38, said racism was still a problem. “In our second season we were playing Barking and our goalkeeper had his beard pulled by a white forward inside the box who shouted, ‘Shave it off you … Paki bastard.’

“He chased the player to the halfway line and was red-carded. When I complained to the referee he said, ‘It is nothing, he did not hurt him, punch or slap him.'”

His most painful memories are of a match in the Essex Business Houses League 10 years ago. “One of our players, only 18, had his face smashed by an opposing player, his tooth popped out. There was lots of racist abuse and a fight broke out and I rang the police. The game was abandoned.

“It is not as bad now. But if any of our players has a beard he will be called Bin Laden or a terrorist. To them now, it’s water off a duck’s back.” Yet white players and officials at the match had a completely different perspective.

Laurie Mallyon, a 58-year-old van driver who was an assistant in the game, said: “I have been officiating for 15 years in the Essex Senior League and I have seen no racism.

“In one game I was refereeing 10 years ago a person called a black guy ‘you black bugger’. I called him over and said, ‘You cannot do that. You will be in serious trouble if you do.’ If you approach the person who had said these things in the proper manner then you can nip it in the bud.

“There is racism on both sides, from the white community and the black community. The John Terry incident should not have got into the media. If you keep it in-house you can iron it out yourself.”

London APSA’s sole white player, 34-year-old goalkeeper Ian Stanley, was surprised to hear there was any racism. “If it goes on, I don’t know. Being in goal, what happens in the middle or the other end I would not know.”

But Stanley, who was recently recruited to the team, said he did not mix with his team-mates after the game, saying: “They socialise among themselves.” This may not be helped by the fact that many of the team, being Muslims, do not drink.

Mr Ali admits this is a problem, but he can see changes. Younger Muslim parents are more supportive of their children playing football than earlier generations of Asians.

At a recent under-nines match, he said: “The kids had been brought by their mums, many of them in hijabs. As the white parents started shouting and screaming, these mothers in hijabs shouted back. It was funny and wonderful to watch.

“As long as it is not racist, it is good for these kids to experience a certain amount of argy-bargy, it will make them stronger. It is a great way to integrate.”


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