Anti-racism campaigner Piara Powar believes “difficult political times” since the Brexit referendum have contributed to recent high-profile incidents of alleged racist abuse at Premier League games.
Powar, head of the anti-discrimination Fare network, praised Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling’s response to being abused at Chelsea – an incident which came just a week after a banana skin was thrown at Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as he celebrated a goal against Tottenham.
Fare, which works to tackle discrimination in football in Europe and worldwide, revealed on Thursday it has received 258 reports of discriminatory incidents this year – already more than the whole of last year and on course to pass the highest total on record, 290 in 2016.
Powar told Football Paradise those figures are “less than the tip of the iceberg” and added: “We live in very difficult political times.
“In the UK I think the Brexit debate has opened up spaces for poisoned debate that didn’t exist before. People are bringing race as an issue to the surface in a way we wouldn’t have envisaged a few years ago.
“If you look at Germany, we see a reaction to the refugees Germany has taken in. Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia are now being led by very populist leaders and in Hungary and Poland, there’s been a roll-back of human rights, the rights of minorities.
“In Germany or parts of eastern Europe we see banners sometimes – ‘no refugees’ or ‘refugees not welcome’, or that kick against what they call the quote-unquote ‘Islamicisation’ of Europe. If someone unfurled a banner like that in the street, there would be a counter-protest or police would consider whether it’s a hate crime.
“Inside a stadium, if they’re not challenged, then it’s a free space, it’s broadcast through TV cameras, other fans are watching it. Some football people do say, ‘It’s a social issue, we can’t deal with it ourselves’, but they do need to realise that football sometimes is escalating this.”
Sterling responded to the Stamford Bridge incident by highlighting the difference between some newspaper coverage of black and white players, and Powar believes the debate he started will prove valuable.
“What’s been shocking and a wake-up call for people has been that these incidents have taken place at two of the biggest matches of the season,” he said.
“What’s really striking is the way in which Raheem Sterling has managed to put something out there which is both thoughtful and enlightening for people. I think that’s very powerful.
“What’s happened too many times in the past, I think, is that players downplay the incident. They don’t want to be seen as a victim so they either don’t talk about it or it’s seen as something that just happens. Raheem Sterling has acknowledged that it happened and then set out some reasons for it and started off a debate.
“Sometimes it takes pain for us to continue on a journey of understanding and dealing with these issues. I think the pain for many people of understanding that these things still go on is going to be worth it.”
Powar, a former director of Kick It Out, also praised the English charity’s outgoing chairman Lord Ouseley for his work over the last 25 years.
Ouseley announced on Tuesday that he will retire at the end of this season and Powar said: “He’s been one of the defining figures fighting for social justice in public life for a very long time. He’s been a shining light.
“It was probably 20 years ago when I started working with him and it was an incredible privilege. You learn so much about the way in which you can use your own voice, the way in which your leadership presence can impact on people, the techniques of creating change.
“He’s been an exemplary leader and I think he will be a big loss. I think Kick It Out will have to evaluate its governance model and how it seeks to replace him. It’s going to be very, very difficult.”
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