Fall - 2012 handshake_featured

Published on October 19th, 2012

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Handshake Soap Opera

The ongoing handshake soap opera goes to the heart of England’s uneasy race relations

By M. Clark

In the English Premier League much attention has during the last year been paid to the handshake debacle involving Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and Man United’s Patrice Evra, culminating in the former player’s refusal to shake hands with Evra in their first encounter following a lengthy ban for what was deemed to be a racist remark.

However, the real story from last year is one that goes to the heart of England’s historically tense race relations: The dramatic fallout between John Terry, a worshipped figure among his own fans and one-time England captain and another former English captain, Evra’s team mate, Rio Ferdinand.

In fact it was Rio’s brother, the far less profiled Anton Ferdinand of QPR, who was immediately involved in the episode which ended in Terry losing his England captaincy, Fabio Capello resigning as England boss and Rio Ferdinand all but ending his national team career. One probably has to be an ardent Chelsea fan and John Terry worshipper to conclude that Terry was blameless in last autumn’s famous episode at Loftus Road where Terry was recorded shouting something that is not suitable for the columns of this online magazine.

 At least the FA concluded that “JT” was no longer a worthy captain of the national team, something that made then national team coach Fabio Capello, probably more inclined than most people to view monkey chants as a natural part of the game, lose his Mediterranean temper and give the FA an offer they definitely could refuse, i.e. let him stay on as national team coach with Terry as his captain. Later Rio Ferdinand, in defense of his brother and presumably the whole black community of Britain, indicated that he could not be in the same team as Terry and was subsequently left out of new manager Roy Hodgson’s lackluster Euro 2012 squad.

 The whole thing may for some people seem to be a shambolic soap opera involving some of the biggest egos in modern day sports – which no doubt is true. But it should also be understood in a deeper context and one has to revisit the disturbing saga of Britain’s uneasy race and class relations to be able to grasp the whole picture. If we view the statistics, the relation between race and class is quite striking in a society that often boasts of its multicultural harmony.

The Poverty Site http://www.poverty.org.uk/06/index.shtml?2 concludes that “Around two-fifths of people from ethnic minorities live in low-income households, twice the rate for White people”. This fact in itself is not necessarily sufficient to generate racial tension, but as the London riots of 1981, 1985, 1995 and most recently in 2011 indicate, the frustration among marginalized black youths at regular intervals boils over. In particular episodes involving “intense policing” by the predominantly white British police force have tended to ignite the fuse, as it did with the shooting of a black man by the police in Tottenham last autumn.

So what has all this to do with a modern day footballer living comfortably in a luxury flat with a pay-check of 5 million pounds a year? For all the easy money currently raining down on the brothers Ferdinand, the two of them are not likely to have forgotten that their childhood was spent in the depressed London district of Peckham and that their father was a tailor from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. At the breakfast table they and their numerous siblings would probably hear stories about how former international footballer Cyrille Regis during the 1980s received a bullet in his mail and a note clearly telling him what would happen to black players who dared entering the Wembley turf. In his autobiography Rio Ferdinand made explicit references to racist episodes experienced during his early career, claiming people would be shocked if he revealed the identity of a very famous player who he says racially abused a teammate throughout an entire game. 

For Rio Ferdinand, the story of John Terry’s badmouthing his brother in presumably racist language revived the old specter that had turned him and so many others of similar backgrounds into angry black young men. That another person fitting perfectly into this category, Chelsea’s Ashley Cole, in this case decided to openly side with his white teammate and captain, made matters even worse from the Ferdinand brothers’ perspective. Had Rio Ferdinand been a more educated man with an interest in classical literature he might have referred to Ashley Cole as “Uncle Tom”. But he instead preferred to gleefully enjoy an anonymous blogger’s reference to the Chelsea player as “choc ice” (black on the outside, white on the inside) – something that resulted in a £45 000 fine from the FA.

When it comes to the handshake complexities in the wake of last season’s racial brawls the foreigners Suarez and Evra seem to have settled for a cold truce. But among the English players the bad blood will not go away that easily. A long and bitter story of racial tension will reach its symbolic climax at Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford when two former England captains later this year will ignore each other and abstain from the handshake for peace.

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