Football faces calls for action on racism in wake of Manchester derby

Amy Walker
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The arrest of a man on Sunday in connection with alleged racist abuse directed towards Manchester United players in a televised derby has led to renewed soul searching about the extent of the problem in the game.

In the immediate aftermath of the match at the Etihad, in which Manchester United beat rivals City 2-1, former player turned pundit Gary Neville blamed politicians including Boris Johnson for creating a climate where racism was more acceptable.

Sky’s cameras appeared to show a home fan making monkey chants directed towards Manchester United’s Brazilian midfielder Fred during the second half of the match in a clip that quickly went viral on social media. The player said on Sunday that the incident demonstrated that we were living in a “backward society”.

The man has been named in reports as Anthony Burke, who, according to his since-removed Facebook page, works for the construction company Kier Group. In now-deleted posts on his Facebook page, Burke denied that he was racist.

Having tweeted on Saturday evening to say it was aware of the video, Kier announced on Sunday that an employee had been suspended.

“Kier has a zero-tolerance policy towards any racist and discriminatory behaviour. We can confirm an employee has been suspended pending an investigation,” said the company in a statement on Twitter.

Earlier the same day a referee was forced to halt a League Two match at Forest Green Rovers’ stadium midway through the second half after reports of a racist comment directed towards Scunthorpe defender Jordan Clarke. There has been a string of events in recent months that have underlined the persistence of racism in football.

Piara Powar, executive director of Fare network, which works against discrimination in football, condemned the incident but said it was unsurprising.

“There is a contagion,” said Powar. “This is happening everywhere unquestionably because of a few things. One of those is mimicry – people are seeing others doing it and they think that they can follow and it’s legitimate to do it.”

He added that the idea of clubs facing sanctions if incidents of racial abuse committed by their fans were frequent should be debated.

“I think focusing on an individual is a good way to make that individual accountable, but sometimes we need to look wider than that and frame people as a collective.”

Speaking on Sky in the aftermath of the Manchester derby, Neville linked Boris Johnson’s rhetoric on immigration during election campaigning with the number of racist incidents in British society and sport.

“You are watching the prime minister’s debate where he is talking about migration to this country and people having to have certain levels. It fuels it all the time,” he said. “It has got worse over the last few years in this country and not just in football.”

He suggested English football has a greater responsibility after Gareth Southgate’s England team were racially abused in Bulgaria this year. “We always judge other countries on how they deal with racism but we are poor with dealing with it ourselves,” he said.

Powar, whose organisation works with Uefa to monitor racism across Europe, agreed with Neville.

“There are things being said within a political domain that four or five years ago were just not acceptable,” he said.

“Whether it’s Boris Johnson and his well-known comments about Africans or Muslim women wearing burqas, or whether it’s the National Front in France. The poisonous discourse is everywhere. What is said by politicians is followed up by the media, some of whom give it legitimacy.”

Greater Manchester police said a 41-year-old had been arrested on suspicion of a racially aggravated public order offence and remained in custody on Sunday for questioning.

Supt Chris Hill of the City of Manchester division said the force was taking the matter extremely seriously. “Racism of any kind has no place in football or our society”, he said. “We will continue to work with Manchester City and Manchester United football clubs on this incident and will investigate any other lines of enquiries.”

Manchester City said that it operated a zero tolerance policy and anyone found guilty of racist abuse would be banned for life.

As United prepared to take a corner, Fred also appeared to have been hit by a cigarette lighter hurled from the crowd.

“Fred and Jesse [Lingard] were in the corner, taking a corner, and I’ve seen the video, heard from the boys,” said the team’s manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

“We keep talking about it every bloody week. But he’s been caught on camera. He should in my opinion never be allowed into a football ground again. Unacceptable.”

It is understood that the team reported the incident to City and referee Anthony Taylor, with more than one player feeling they had been subjected to racist abuse.

The Football Association will also launch an investigation and will speak to Taylor, the clubs, the police and other relevant parties. In a statement, the Premier League said it would not tolerate discrimination in any form and that racism was not welcome at games.

Fred said the alleged abuse showed that we were still living “in a backward society”. “On the field, I didn’t see anything. I saw it only in the locker room afterwards,” he told ESPN Brazil. “Unfortunately, this is happening in some stadiums. It happened here, it happened in Ukraine with some friends. It’s sad, but we have to keep our heads up and forget about that.

“We are all the same regardless of skin colour, hair and gender. We came from the same place and we all go to the same place when it’s all said and done. Thank God I have a lot of friends here in the locker room who hugged me, like Lingard. I don’t want to think about it. I just want to move on.”