AS FOOTBALL united to salute the memory of Nelson Mandela, a champion of racial unity and mutual respect, Boro fans were dragged reluctantly into a divisive race row after an unsavoury Quran ripping incident by a small group in the away end at Birmingham.
The club have reiterated their own strong line on racism but more importantly so have Boro supporters who were quick to condemn the handful of idiots. Here by popular demand (no, really) is the Kick It Out remix of this week’s Big Picture column.
IT WAS a poignant moment.
Both teams were lined up clapping before kick off at St Andrew’s as part of a generous and sincere minute’s applause to mark the life of Nelson Mandela before Boro’s 2-2 draw at Birmingham.
Panning along the line, players of a dozen nationalities respectfully joined in, although it is hard to judge their level of individual commitment to, knowledge of or interest in Mandela’s life and political legacy. For some of the players – and some of the crowd – it may be a case of another week, another touching tribute.
But halfway along the Boro squad there was a striking image. Kei Kamara stood with head bowed but his arm raised proudly with his fist clenched in an uncompromising salute. His gesture was the ‘amandla’ salute, a familiar gesture throughout Africa where it is associated with popular struggles against oppression.
It was an arresting sight. It had echoes of the dramatic, politically charged moment in the 1968 Olympics when medal winning US athletes Tommy Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute from the podium.
Obviously Kamara’s salute does not relate directly to an explosive fissure in our own society. It will not shock or threaten the domestic audience.
It wasn’t a revolutionary call for armed struggle.
But it was far from just an empty gesture.
For we in England, Nelson Mandela may well be an eighties pop single, the cypher for a ‘right on’ Ben Elton student politics and boycotts or the more recent post-prison cuddly respected elder statesman, fawned over as an abstract harmless pin-up by sports people, musicians or politicians – many of who used to support apartheid.
But in Africa he is a far more potent figure, the embodiment of a decades long struggle for freedom, justice and equality against an entrenched economic super-power that dominated the continent with the tacit support of the developed nations.
And the success of the people of South Africa in liberating themselves is a powerful symbol of possibility in Africa and beyond. The country is far from perfect but it is free and can control its own destiny. And for all its faults it remains a beacon of hope in a turbulent continent that there is a future beyond post-colonial strife.
For Kamara, who faced the reality of violence and political dislocation before he escaped war-torn Sierra Leone, the image and legacy of Mandela will have far more emotive currency than for us.
His salute was a sincere and heart felt gesture. That was obvious.
I was proud that a Boro player was so overt in his personal celebration of a giant figure.
Football is a globalised game now and we must be aware of the cultural nuances of players from diverse backgrounds and very different experiences from our own.
So it was saddening and shocking to hear reports of a very disturbing incident in the away end during the same match as a small group of Boro fans trampled over any notion of cosmopolitan sensitivity.
It was reported that, in a crass show of ignorance and stupidity, a handful of idiots made their own symbolic gesture and ripped out pages of the Koran and spread them as shameful confetti.
The English language copies of the Islamic holy book had been given away free at a stall at a Christmas market in Birmingham city centre, under a banner asking “Do you know that Muslims worship Jesus also?”
It was a goodwill gesture by Moslems trying to build inter-denominational bridges in a city with an incredible religious and ethnic mix. That is a move to be welcomed.
But some of that small but toxic group reacted with a calculated hateful insult, took the holy text into the ground and ripped it up adding a nasty soundtrack with a chorus of a song about Birmingham’s demographics.
It probably wasn’t a pre-meditated act and has very little coherent political content but the opportunist idiocy was a small-minded and distasteful provocation that could easily have prompted a far bigger backlash.
The incident was filmed by Birmingham stewards and a couple of individuals were spoken to by stewards and local police but no charges were made at the time – although West Midlands are now reviewing the incident and action may follow. The incident will be logged and remembered and can only reflect badly on Boro supporters.
On a day marked by a show of respect that crossed barriers of race, nationality and religion on the pitch and in the stands you have to wonder what Kamara would have made of it all.
He is a bright, articulate and talented guy with an incredible back-story and who deserves respect. He has used his position and influence – and money – to help rebuild his shattered country using his success in his sport to get things done on the ground. He is one of the good guys.
And he is a very popular Boro player proving a hit with fans. He interacts easily through twitter and has championed an inclusive notion of a united #BoroNation. He is a great asset to the team and the club and he deserves support.
He is also a Moslem.
And he is not the only one. Both Mustapha Carayol and Faris Haroun are too.
Yet there are a minority of Boro fans who see no problem with public demonstrations of ignorant broad brush hatred that would appear to include some of their own players.
Indeed they celebrated it. Some of those involved spent much of the weekend defending their actions on social media in a fashion that revealed some of their alarmingly simplistic thinking.
“You had to be there today the legendary Koran incident we are Boro were Barmy we will do what we want. Pork pies bacon sarrnies and your book left in bits ENGLAND till we Die.”
That was the punctuation-free Facebook status that sparked a long bout of cyber-squabbling and ever more cringe making attempts at justification telling fellow fans who objected to lighten up, it was just ‘banter’ and talked about their right to free speech then retreated into a bout of ‘whataboutery’ attempting to justify their own boorish wilful ignorance by reference to equal one-eyed stupidity perpetrated by “them” elsewhere in arenas far removed from a Middlesbrough match.
The club are aware of the incident, have stressed have a zero tolerance policy on racism and are co-operating with Birmingham City and West Midland police. Boro chiefs have said they will ban for life anyone convicted of a racially motivated offence. Which is good.
And it is important that they take do action to defend the credibility of their public campaigning and put down an unequivocal marker that such poisonous activity will not be tolerated: Show racism the red card. Not a yellow. Not have a quiet word.
There have been increasing mumbles in the past few years of low level background racism and reports of vile chanting among isolated pockets of the Boro away contingent at grounds and around towns and on public transport and we must hope that such bigotry, hate and ignorance does not gain a renewed voice.
Football spent years driving the overt and intimidating racism that was a regular feature of matches in the seventies and eighties out of the game and off the terraces and we must not allow it to creep back in through the guise of Islamaphobia. We can not allow the background white noise of intolerance to become a Trojan Horse that will allow extremists to gather around the game in the way the National Front did in the past.
Campaigns by groups like Kick It Out and Show Racism The Red Card, a more pro-active approach from clubs against racism and the steady growth in numbers and profile of black players – domestic and imported – have helped create a much more inclusive atmosphere at grounds that has led to a much more varied ethnic mix at most grounds.
And society itself has changed, becoming much more cosmopolitan and colour-blind. Football is a reflection of that society. We as individuals and collectively must decide what type of game and what type of society we want.
Ironically, in a timely coincidence, the clash with Brighton had already been designated as Boro’s annual Kick It Out event so players will wear t-shirts and staff will wear badges. It is not just a token effort: Boro players often act as ant-racism ambassadors and conduct workshops in local schools while the club work closely with a broad range of Asian community groups throughout the year.
But there is no room for complacency. As Albert Adomah told the Gazette, the game is visibly more of a multi-cultural melting pot than ever before and so Kick It Out is as important as ever. Players have to support each other and the campaign.
And as fans we have to recognise that we have a responsibility too. Club officials and the police are distant background figures on matchdays when the crowd takes centre-stage and takes on a life of its own. And that puts supporters right on the front line.
The fight against racism in the game was led by fans. While the copped a deaf ‘un to racist chanting and the press, the clubs and the football authorities all turned a blind eye, it was decent supporters that pushed the issue into the spotlight.
It was conscious self-policing by supporters groups driven by the consciously anti-racist fanzine movement and groups like the Football Supporters Association that really made the difference within the crowd. They started the debate. They placed demands on clubs. They demanded action from the police.
They turned the tide on the terraces to the point where collective racist chanting is almost unknown and individual barracking sounds shocking and brings a flurry of complaints, especially at home. No-one wants to sit near a vocal racist.
So if there was any good to come out of the “legendary Koran incident” it was the spirited reaction by Boro fans quick to defend the reputation of the club and the travelling fans.
The majority of on-line activity in the aftermath was from decent, fair-minded fans, including eye-witnesses, horrified to be associated no matter how tenuously and eager to stress that it was totally unacceptable and corrosive behaviour.
The debate was heated at times and heavyhearted at others and went over some very tired and familiar ground – but it helped rally good fans to the flag.
Supporters are also now planning a show of their inclusive credentials. The Red Faction in particular want to publicly distance themselves from any hint of racism. They are generally among the noisiest and visible fans on the road and often pull off a set-piece stunt at games that get them noticed – but they want to make it crystal clear this was nothing to do with them.
The group are organising planning a march with banners reiterating that Boro fans are against racism. It starts from the first underpass near Cineworld and will parade to the Ayresome Park gates at the ground from 2pm before Saturday’s clash with Brighton.
Join them. Or at least show support. It’s important.