Last Wednesday saw John Barnes launch a new initiative against racism in an impassioned talk entitled The Beautiful Game: An Ugly Culture delivered to the Union’s Academy 2. The former England star spoke alongside Manchester Village FC manager Matt Hall and offered an unorthodox take on the problem of racism in football.
Despite his previous involvement with campaigns such as Kick It Out!, Barnes was surprisingly dismissive of recent government attempts to introduce new legislation against racism in the game, labeling David Cameron’s recent meeting with black footballers as an “attempt to win votes”. Furthermore, the Liverpool and Watford legend called the prospect of punishments made against John Terry and Luis Suarez for racial abuse a case of “slapping people on the wrists after they’ve been caught being naughty”.
Instead, the Jamaica-born former winger proposed that the government, along with the game’s governing bodies, should focus on deconstructing “the myth of race” within wider society. Dominant cultural perceptions, Barnes argues, must be tackled in order to enact changes that are more than superficial. Punishments for indiscretions on match day, he insists, will do nothing to stop people from expressing racist opinions “the other six days of the week”. By understanding the way in which the discourse of racial difference was imposed in the past, and confronting the “pervasive legacy of colonialism”, Barnes argues that the problem of racism can be effectively tackled.
Startlingly, the 48-year-old called for a wholesale program of “truth and reconciliation”, similar to those seen in South Africa and Rwanda, such is the extent of residual prejudice within the sporting community. Indeed, it was claimed that “any Premier League manager or player over the age of forty” was likely to have harbored racial prejudices. However, Barnes again reiterated that “it’s not football’s fault, it’s society’s fault”, and that singling out individuals for criticism was pointless.
Barnes, who now works as a pundit for ESPN sports, was nevertheless critical of a number of high-profile figures within the press and the footballing establishment. One such figure is Sir Alex Ferguson, who he accuses of hypocrisy in the Suarez affair, considering the manager’s unwavering support of Peter Schmeichel when the Danish goalkeeper was embroiled in a similar scandal. The BBC, Barnes alleges, turned down his proposal for a documentary discussing racism from a sociological perspective, as he was unwilling to compare the Premier League favorably to leagues in Poland and the Ukraine. The Football Association, meanwhile, were characterised as a cast of “60-year-old, white men”. Former Liverpool team-mate Alan Hansen’s recent gaffe of referring to “coloured players”, however, was dismissed as an innocent mistake.
Throughout the talk, Barnes downplayed the shocking racial abuse he received during the early years of his playing career with a disarming humility. The abuse, he claims, never affected him because he “was totally empowered”. He also insisted that the worst aspects of racism were felt by “the black man on the street who can’t get a job in a shop”, rather than by professional sportsmen. However, he has taken his status as an Anfield legend with a pinch of salt, claiming that “they never loved me, they loved John Barnes number ten”.
Bold statements such as this made the opening address of Barnes’ tour of universities a provocative spectacle. However, the former winger’s passion, good humour and impressive understanding of history ensured that the audience left with a new insight into a hotly debated subject.