The video, filmed by a bystander on a mobile phone, reeks of shameful muck. A group of travelling Chelsea fans, clumped together in a Paris metro train, shove back a black passenger who is trying to board. Twice they refuse him admission, laughing like clod-headed bullies, while the victim looks around exasperated, fearful and confused. A random act of putrid racism, flippantly indulged in, just for laughs. “We’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it”, they chant happily after their victim has given up.
It seems quite astonishing that an act so horribly transgressive would be committed so happily in public. Chelsea have been quick to condemn the perpetrators pictured in the footage.
“Such behaviour is abhorrent and has no place in football or society. We will support any criminal action against those involved, and should evidence point to involvement of Chelsea season-ticket holders or members the club will take the strongest possible action against them, including banning orders.”
Thinking about the racist football hooligan archetype conjures up range of images. The furious skinhead, neck muscles flaring, wearing suspenders and Doc Martins. The parka-sporting Eastern European Ultra, complete with flare and highwayman’s bandanna. The shirtless fellow with all the tattoos climbing up on the fence surrounding the pitch and waving a plank with a nail in it. These aren’t the people with whom Jose Mourinho has taken issue for not being boisterous enough at home games. These shy and retiring “wealthy types” that many would argue have neutered the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, are these the same people who commit hate crimes on French public transport?
Geography is still the major factor when it comes to determining who supports what team. In London, the various boroughs are divvied up between the local clubs, with Chelsea holding the lions share of support in West London, over Queens Park Rangers, even encroaching onto the fringes of Watford’s turf. This is an area of the city where the average property sale price is over £2 million. When the club was bought by Roman Abramovich in 2003, his petro-dollars instigated a Golden Age that would turn Chelsea into London’s most successful club, an age that continues to this day, with the Blues seven points clear top of the Premier League. As the league titles and European cups started rolling in, up went the price of admission. Currently, Chelsea’s cheapest season ticket (£595) is the sixth most expensive in the league, with their top tier season ticket (£1250) the third most expensive. The argument, propelled by Mourinho, is thus: the inflated prices have filled the stands with money-flushed tourists there to take in the spectacle of English football. The punters who really bellow into the night are left to yell in the pubs, priced out of the equation. The racist louts in Paris, however, were travelling supporters, and though, with cheap airlines and internet deals, it is much easier to hop over to Paris for a mid-week tie, one must assume that the offenders in question must be fairly fiscally viable. Obviously, it isn’t mutually exclusive to be wealthy and a bigot, you can easily be both of those things and still be given a knighthood in Australia. But to openly sport your festering racist convictions like a badge of honour to be paraded around and acted upon overseas?
We must remember that the despicable group on that Paris train are a minority that must not be used to represent Chelsea fans generally. What’s really most jarring here is that this incident grinds horribly up against the general idea about what kind of city London is; a cosmopolitan beacon of diversity. It is also a prevalent conception that football and its institutions in England, compared to the equivalents in Italy, Spain and other parts of mainland Europe, have worked incredibly hard to make sure that the racism and violence that was once utterly commonplace is no longer. When the former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi feels comfortable about complaining that there are “too many black players” in the the Italian youth ranks, and Barcelona’s Dani Alves is forced to concoct ingenious comebacks when bananas are thrown at him from the stands, it certainly feels like England are leading the way in this regard. London, when looking at the city as a whole, is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the world, streets ahead of any other European capital. Of course, going through it borough by borough, a less evenly-distributed picture emerges; as of the 2011 census, heavy clumping earmarks the city. The borough with the highest proportion of black Londoners is Lewisham, in the south-east, which is Millwall/Arsenal country. For Asian Londoners, it’s Newham, in the east, firmly West Ham United turf. Richmond-upon-Thames and Havering, (Chelsea/Arsenal and West Ham territory, respectively) are both nearly 90% white. Evenly distributed boroughs are rare; Brent is one of the few boroughs that stand out, with 36% white residents, 34% Asian and 19% black. Ironically enough, Brent is staunch Chelsea territory. To illustrate just how differing the demographic make-up can be, Brent’s neighbouring borough, Kensington and Chelsea, is far less diverse, with 70% white residents, the ninth highest proportion of white inhabitants of all the city’s boroughs.
The thrumming heat of racism in football only occasionally geysers out into the open. That it’s seen less frequently is a testament to the people and organisations that have striven to eradicate it, but it also only makes the Paris video footage more difficult to watch without clenching your teeth. This incident, or Malky Mackay’s text messages, or hissing from West Ham fans at White Hart Lane, or any other vile episode, are not representative of the state of racioethnic relations in England. But what they do show is that the fight to scrub away the stain of racism from football isn’t nearly over.