It is what we have come to expect from Russian officialdom. According to CSKA Moscow’s American-accented spokesman, there was absolutely no racially motivated intent behind what Yaya Toure heard in the Khimki Arena on Tuesday night.
Those bare-chested ranks of choreographed Muscovite cheerleaders were merely doing what every crowd anywhere in the world does: good-naturedly booing opponents in order to support their team. Toure got it wrong. The implication is the Ivorian has not only over-reacted, he needs a hearing test.
Given the choice in a court of law, whose evidence on the issue of whether the chanting was racist would you be more inclined to accept? That of an intelligent, multilingual footballer, always considered with his public opinions and with absolutely no reputation for crying wolf? Or an apologist for a bunch of neo-Nazis keen to show how hard they are by standing shirt-free on a freezing October night? Thought so.
Let’s just reiterate the facts here. Toure has played around the world. He has played for Barcelona at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid. He has played for Manchester City against United at Old Trafford. He knows the difference between booing and monkey chants. He’s been around the block long enough to appreciate the difference on Tuesday night in the tone emanating from the stands between when he had the ball and when any of his white colleagues were in possession.
If these emollient, decent, upstanding, non-racist CSKA supporters were merely expressing their appropriately partisan distaste for an opponent, how come it was only Toure they subjected to their suspiciously grunt-like chants?
Unfortunately the dilemma Toure faced in Moscow is central to the problem football has with addressing the racism in its midst. Clearly the player was right to point it out. Surely, the game must have progressed from the days when black players were urged that the best way of showing the racists the were wrong was to score a goal. Behaviour like he encountered is utterly abhorrent. And when it is encountered it should be exposed.
Yet, as so often happens, when the City captain attempted to follow the procedure for dealing with such issues, he found his own character and motives traduced. He pointed out to the referee the not unreasonable irony between the message on his armband which insisted that UEFA was at the forefront of the fight against racism, and the noises spewing from the stands every time he touched the ball. But the referee – empowered to act there and then – preferred to ignore him, pretended it wasn’t happening, hoped it might go away.
Now, without the support of the referee, CSKA insist he is wrong, a cloth-eared whinger. This is the depressing aftermath of too many of football’s racist incidents: the messenger is shot. Or worse, in the case of Anton Ferdinand, the victim is vilified.
Take the example of the whistleblower in the England dressing room who tipped off the Sun about Roy Hodgson’s odd use of the term “feed the monkey” to describe the act of giving the ball to Andros Townsend. In much of the follow-up, the anonymous player’s integrity was assaulted. He was variously described as a coward, a fraud and a trouble-maker. At best, the consensus was he was over reacting.
Yet what exactly was he supposed to do in those circumstances? Now he might have been wrong in his suspicions of Hodgson’s meaning, but what procedure exactly was there for him to follow to air his worries? Had he made his feelings known publicly to Hodgson, his coaching staff or anyone at the FA, could he have been sure his own position would not have been compromised?
If the game is so anxious to rid itself of the corroding stain of racist language, what is a player in such circumstances supposed to do? If he comes out openly he is mocked. If he remains anonymous he is accused of cowardice. Yet, if he remains silent, then nothing changes.
Toure shows no sign of remaining silent. And good on him. Why should, when the 2018 World Cup comes around, African players subject themselves to the kind of treatment he felt he endured on Tuesday? The threat of boycott might actually provoke UEFA into action.
And they need to do something. When one of their member clubs responds to a charge of this nature by suggesting that the complainant needs his ears syringing, then Michel Platini’s body has a serious problem. Evidently, whatever the window dressing of armbands and pitchside advertising hoardings, there are participants in their competitions who really don’t take racist activity with the seriousness required to ensure its eradication.
For sure, there is no easy solution. Yes, maybe the ultimate sanction of having points deducted on the say so of a player is, inevitably, open to abuse. But UEFA could help by at least treating the issue with a seriousness it requires. Last season, City were fined more by the governing body for turning up late to a press conference than Benfica were for failing to stop racist chanting among their fans. Unless the governing body takes it seriously, then there is no reason any of the clubs will do so.
Sepp Blatter is the guest of honour at the FA’s 150th anniversary dinner in London tomorrow night. It would be great if he used his speech to suggest that the game needs to ensure that, a century and a half on from its humble beginnings in a Holborn pub, it is now genuinely for everybody.
Wouldn’t it be great if he started by saying if there were any more incidents like Tuesday’s in any Russian grounds then he would move his 2018 World Cup to a country where African visitors might be accorded the same sort of respect as everyone else. But I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Premier League: A History in 10 Matches by Jim White is out now, £18.99