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England And Sterling Forced Into Toxic And Divisive Culture War

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Why are black footballers being thrown into situations where they know they will be abused – and will the authorities finally protect them?

It should be a scene to embarrass football’s governing bodies into change. 

The Football Association (FA) has asked FIFA to investigate reports of racist chanting towards Raheem Sterling and Jude Bellingham, stemming from England’s World Cup qualifier in Budapest against Hungary on Thursday. 

The English governing body expressed “disappointment at the reports of racism after the final whistle” and have taken statements from the players to present to FIFA.

The Hungarian Football Association (MLSZ) has acknowledged that the throwing of objects was wrong but failed to mention racism in their statement after the match.

What was witnessed was a depressingly predictable scene. 

It’s easy to forget that Borussia Dortmund midfielder Bellingham is still just 18. He’s a kid born in Stourbridge to Denise and Mark Bellingham, who chased his football dream in Birmingham City’s academy while attending Priory School.

With most boys his age picking their university, Bellingham has found himself being attacked on the front line of a toxic and divisive culture war.

Sterling, at 26, is also a young man but he has been inspiring the next generation for a long time. The Manchester City forward is one of England’s leaders, particularly for the younger players of ethnic descent, who know they will be subjected to racial abuse in the international arena.

English players have come up against Nazi symbolism and monkey chants in the recent past but face prejudice in their own country too. Charges have been placed against individuals in the United Kingdom over racial abuse of black England players in the wake of the Euro 2020 final penalty shootout defeat. 

And although harder to confront, Sterling has skillfully exposed the unconscious bias in his country’s media culture too.

Battling unconscious bias is an ongoing and difficult struggle and out-and-out racism needs to be tackled at an institutional level. FIFA and UEFA have the tools at their disposal, with observers at each and every game. They should be educated into looking out for racist symbols, gestures and audible abuse.

Governing bodies should be dishing out harsher punishments to offending nations – Hungary in this case – or else their anti-racism campaigns look like empty gestures.

Furthermore, they shouldn’t be lending their brands – and therefore tacit support – to questionable regimes.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino has been pictured cosying up to Hungarian president Victor Orban, who has been pushing through anti-LGBT legislation in his home country, at a UEFA conference. The picture glorifies a ruler seen as anti-democratic.

As those in charge of the game fail them, it is left to youngsters like Bellingham to face abuse. 

All they can do is create inspiring images through their performances over the 90 minutes they are on the field. The photographs of Sterling celebrating his opening goal with objects raining down onto him will show the next generation there is nothing to be afraid of.

Equally, Declan Rice and Jack Grealish drinking the beers that were thrown at them show a willingness from the white majority to back their friends.

Manager Gareth Southgate has set the tone for how white people should act in these situations. He listens to those who are on the receiving end of the offence and he is also quick remind that the UK needs to get its own house in order. 

“[Punishments] are for other people to deal with,” he said after the match, a 4-0 win. “Our players can’t do anything more than they have done in the past two or three years in trying to get the right messages out, take the right stands, and it’s for other people to protect them.

“It’s for me to protect them in the main, but for the authorities to protect them as well.”

Although the families of these stars will be proud, they know that their young sons, brothers and nephews don’t deserve to be exposed to this vile side of humanity.

The political leaders that empower these actions should bear witness the results of what they’ve done.

In the meantime, abandoned by those with power, England’s players must back up Sterling and take on the culture war in their World Cup qualifying campaign.

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