Racism, sectarianism and codding ourselves

Did you watch the Bulgaria-England soccer international last night? I watched part of the first half and, with England 3-0 up and the referee halting the game twice to check on racist abuse coming from the crowd, I switched over. This morning press reports on the match have headings like ‘Vile and disturbing Sofia spectacle will live long in sporting infamy’.

Really? Last night was a long way from being the historical worst at a football game. British football is littered with racism and sectarianism, much of it more vicious and hate-filled than anything that happened last night.

I remember the first time I went to a First Division game in Newcastle – I was living there in the mid- 1970s. I suddenly realized that Match of the Day had been deceiving me for years. On TV, the crowd roars and chants were blurred but sounded enthusiastic and sporting. In reality, at the actual game, they were obscene and scurrilous.  And of course here we have Windsor Park, where sectarian abuse has reached a whole new level, including death-threats to players because of their religious background.

How is it that a society, and those who write about its sporting life, can be so blind and deaf to knuckle-dragging hatred? By not writing about it and denouncing it for what it is, our media have been complicit in this nastiness.  Or was there a time when we all thought racial and/or sectarian abuse was just a bit of fun, part of the game?

Of course we’re more enlightened now, right? The colour of a person’s skin or their religion doesn’t matter a whit. Although it’s odd how few marriages/partnerships there are between people of a different colour.  Ireland today is multi-ethnic and tolerant to a degree you couldn’t have imagined thirty years ago. But how many immigrant people inter-marry or even spend time with Irish people?

There’s no doubt we’re getting better. But two things still puzzle me. How is it that practices that were  excused for decades, even centuries, as harmless and normal, have in more recent times have been recognized for the bone-headed cruelties they are? And how is it that all the talk yesterday was about Queen Elizabeth and her son Charles and how long the 70-year-old must wait before he gets the gig, and not a word about the fact that the British head of state, by law, must not be a Catholic?

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