This year will go down in the history books as a momentous one for UK sport. Andy Murray cast off the weight of national expectation, clinching the US Open; Bradley Wiggins became the first British winner of the Tour de France; and, in case anybody has forgotten, Team GB did rather well for themselves at the Olympics.
Ironically though, for football – perhaps the nation’s most popular sporting export – it has been a year marked by conflict and controversy. The game’s news agenda over the last 12 months has been dominated by allegations of racist abuse by players, fans and even referees.
Among the many opinions voiced over the year, those of a former Catford College student have been some of the most quoted. Lord Herman Ouseley, the influential activist and life peer, was a key figure in the establishment of Kick It Out, one of the most prominent anti-discrimination campaigns in world football. As chairman of the organisation, he has spoken widely about recent developments.
Ouseley was back in Lewisham last week at the launch Equaliteam, a local organisation he helped develop. Unsurprisingly, football found a way into his speech. “It’s one of the most controversial areas where we hear anything said about race now. That’s become a focus that some people may not like but at least people are talking about it, at least they’re challenging it, at least we can see a reflection of the nastiness that still exists in society.”
Kick It Out came in for some criticism last month as its annual awareness week was boycotted by a number of black players unhappy with the lack of decisive action on racism in the game. But Ouseley has maintained that the FA and PFA are the true targets of dissent. Speaking to Eastlondonlines after his appearance in Lewisham, Ouseley defended the organisation’s track record.
“I think what we’ve got to do is look at the landscape, which has changed considerably since 1993. At that time, black people couldn’t go to football games because they were spat at, beaten up, abused – and black players were vilely abused. The families of black players couldn’t attend matches because of the abuse, so those players were on their own.
“That landscape has changed, though. Now there are hearings and sanctions and, although there has been some time lag, the FA has moved from lethargy and timidity on issues of racism to taking action.”
Speaking specifically about the t-shirt boycott, Ouseley was quick to characterise it as an instance of players using the campaign to voice dissatisfaction rather than an attack on the organisation itself.
He said: “Kick It Out’s greatest achievement is that players are expressing their grievances and those grievances are being accepted.”
One such grievance was expressed last month in Lewisham, when Bolton Wanderers striker Marvin Sordell complained that he and other teammates suffered racist abuse at the hands of Millwall supporters. The incident came to a resolution yesterday when the 13-year-old who was found to have been responsible delivered a written apology to Sordell. Millwall FC has banned the boy from games and offered him a place on an education programme.
Significantly, education has been a key feature of Ouseley’s campaigning work throughout his career. Originally from Guyana, he first came to Britain as a boy in the ‘50s. He grew up in Peckham, where racial tensions were high in the wake of the Second World War. Recalling his childhood at the Lewisham meeting, Ouseley spoke about the importance of education in tackling discrimination; using education not just for perpetrators of racism, but also for its victims.
“One of the saddest things about my life growing up in Peckham was not being called ‘wog’, ‘sambo’, ‘coon’ and all those things – when I saw other children smiling at me, I thought they were being friendly. It was when adults came to me and said, ‘We didn’t win the war for you people to come here and take our homes and our jobs.’
“I didn’t know the history of the Black and Asian contribution to the Allied forces during the great wars of the last century, how hundreds of thousands died in service for this country.
“It’s very important that we have a role in educating the population about themselves, about their history, about their heritage and about their contribution. Children should not feel that they don’t belong, that they have no value.”
Remarking on how Lewisham has changed over the decades, Ouseley is upbeat, describing it as a cosmopolitan borough that has enjoyed some good leadership over the years. He is under no impression, however, that the fight for equality is won. “Racism still exists, but in different forms. There are subtleties that have to be focussed on distinctly if you are to deal with those in a meaningful way.”