Hurricane Blatter meets English tumbleweed
Whilst the storm over Sepp Blatter’s comments continues to build, whipped up further by a Twitterspat with Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand, the response from England’s political and football hierarchy has been interesting, to say the least. Ed Miliband, lambasted in various liberal quarters for his perceived lateness to embrace the Occupy London movement, was quick off the mark this time. The leader of the Opposition referred to the Fifa president’s remarks as “a disgrace”, and called for new leadership; a move in which he was matched by Gordon Taylor, the head of the Professional Footballers Association. Meanwhile, both the Coalition and shadow sports ministers were swift to condemn Blatter’s apparent complacency, respectively referring to his views as “morally indefensible” and “totally outrageous”.
The main source of intrigue, though, has been the curiously cowed response from some of the English game’s senior powerbrokers. The Premier League, having called a meeting of all of its clubs, then issued a joint statement on racism from all 20 clubs remarkable for its failure to mention FIFA at any point – what we might call “tumbleweed PR”.
“’The English game has been at the forefront of tackling racist behaviour and other forms of discrimination”, read the text. “Everybody in the game in England understands any form of racism is totally unacceptable. There are still issues, as there are in society, so with our partners, Kick It Out, the PFA and The FA, we must remain committed and vigilant to maintaining the standards we have set and confronting any incidents that occur. There is no place for discrimination in football and we will continue to strive to eliminate it.”
This is a statement that could have been copied and pasted from an anti-racism brochure at almost any time in the last 15 years. Though it is very tempting to mock the Premier League for what looks to be a defensive stance, their approach, though tortuous, is supported by a solid though regrettable argument. Three of the Premier League’s biggest clubs – Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea, are currently embroiled in concurrent inquiries over racial abuse.
Moreover, Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and Chelsea’s John Terry - two of the Premier League’s biggest stars, and, coincidentally, two of its most divisive characters – are alleged to have made racist comments. With these cases pending, it’s easy to see why the Premier League has released this utterly colourless statement, in the hope that this will blow over. If, after all, they condemn Fifa’s complacency and then conduct inquiries where any of the parties end up crying foul, they will look like the worst of hypocrites. The FA, for their part, must be thanking their lucky stars. Only a day before, when they formally charged Luis Suarez with racial abuse, they announced that they would be issuing “no further comment at this time”. Unsurprisingly, given the furore of the next 24 hours, they have remained true to their word.
Meanwhile, Number 10 issued a statement from the Prime Minister so brief that he could almost have tweeted it. “It’s appalling to suggest that racism in any way should be accepted as part of the game”, went the statement. “A lot of work has gone into ridding racism from all aspects of our society, including football. As many of our top sports stars have rightly pointed out, now is not the time for complacency.” Again, tumbleweed. There was no mention of Sepp Blatter by name; again, as with the Premier League, the timing of the remarks left no doubt as two whom they were about. Indeed, these PR strategies were so similar that the conspiracy theorist in me wonders if the Premier League and PM’s spokespeople got together to compare notes.
What do these statements reveal? I think they show two things. First, from Number 10’s part, I think they show that the Prime Minister would rather avoid a direct confrontation with Blatter over this issue, preferring to leave it to Hugh Robertson, his sports minister. I think that Cameron lacks the leverage to call successfully for Blatter’s head, and to do so would be an embarrassing mistake: and, following the World Cup vote fiasco, I doubt that he wants a second public humiliation at the hands of Fifa.
Secondly, I think that the Premier League statement betrays fear: that they don’t quite have the hang of dealing with public relations around this racism thing. Otherwise, I think they might have come out with a more strident and powerful statement. It’s only a guess, but they also possibly regret pinning their colours to John Terry’s mast, given his unfortunate ability to attract trouble at the most inopportune moments: and they might well breathe a sigh of relief when they can finally hand the captain’s armband to someone like Joe Hart. For the next few weeks, though, they may be squirming a little in their suits; though not nearly so much as Blatter is in his.Tagged in: david cameron, ed miliband, FA, FIFA, Gordon Taylor, Hugh Robertson, Joe Hart, john terry, Kick It Out, Luis Suarez, Premier League, Professional Footballers' Association, rio ferdinand, Sepp Blatter
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