Eric Cantona, the long-term French footballer (now retired), was in the news again only a few days ago. He used to be in the news quite frequently, having played for a number of French football clubs before moving to England and making his mark for Manchester United. Cantona’s arrival at Manchester, his strong, tenacious and skillful footballing and his determination despite the odds revived the fortunes of the Manchester United club. His career was closely followed by the mainstream media, and his football prowess, along with his fiery temperamental nature, were never in doubt. However, earlier in September 2015, he was quoted in the news for an issue unrelated to football (okay, soccer for our Australian readers).
He made a strong, assertive statement about the current refugee crisis now confronting the European Union. The former Manchester United legend stated that he was quite happy to open his home to accommodate refugees, and blamed the Western governments for the refugee crisis through their devastating wars in the Middle East. Appalled by the rising ultra-right and anti-immigrant xenophobia in Europe, Cantona stated that “We create wars for economic reasons and then people flee countries because we’ve created chaos and we’re not even able to receive them.”
Cantona reasoned that his French compatriots had swung to the right on a national level, and while he voted for the nominally socialist French President Hollande, he expressed his disappointment in the rightward trajectory of the governing party in France. Cantona’s remarks were widely reported in the British media, and were made in response to the current influx of refugees seeking entry in European Union countries – the most serious refugee crisis in Europe since the end of World War Two. As Molly Scott Cato stated in her article for the New Statesman magazine, the response of European governments to the refugee influx today has ominous parallels with the treatment of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Germany in the 1930s. Today we know what happened to those Jewish people who were denied sanctuary. Scott Cato notes the overwhelming cacophony of xenophobic outpouring, and the expression of semi-fascistic viciousness exemplified by the cowardly sneering of Murdoch columnist Katie Hopkins, in greeting those who are escaping the horrors in their own countries – nations that have been driven into chaos by the wars of the imperialist states.
Je Suis Cantona – twenty years on
This is not the first time that Cantona has confronted racism – indeed, this years marks twenty years since the most seminal moment in English football history. This moment has significance not so much because of its association with football – okay, soccer – but because it forms the equivalent JFK moment for those who follow football in the United Kingdom.
In an excellent article published in Counterfire magazine, Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman described the immediate impact and ongoing repercussions of Cantona’s actions in ‘Je Suis Cantona’. January 1995, in an ordinary match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace, Cantona, after being targeted by the opposition Crystal Palace players, is red-carded. Nothing unusual there – Cantona, being a Frenchman playing in the English premier league was the frequent recipient of foul play by other players and jeering abuse by opposing football fans.
The game was proceeding as normal – the fans were shouting, cheering their respective teams, booing the opponents. Cantona was walking off the field when a particular fan, who happened to be a member of the anti-immigrant and racist British National Party (BNP), made his way down eleven rows to the fence on the field and expressed his opinion of Cantona. What did he say? According to court transcripts, our racist friend offered the following intelligent commentary about Cantona’s presence in the sceptered isle: “You dirty French bastard. Fuck off back to France”. Some versions of the event have the foul-mouthed, racist assailant, expressing the following variation on the theme: “Fuck off back to France you French motherfucker.”
We can see here the common theme expressed by the racist abuser; a profound cultural aversion to anything of foreign importation, in this case, French. Not exactly a criticism one would find in the arts and cultural review pages of The Guardian or The Independent newspapers, but nevertheless we can discern an emergent theme: foreigners are not welcome. Cantona, already seething, did the unthinkable – he ran up to the fence, and launched himself feet-first at the racist footballer fan – something that sent shock waves not just through Britain, but through the rest of Europe as well. The Guardian newspaper covered the event here. The BBC offered a retrospective on the incident in an article largely hostile to Cantona here.
Counterfire’s Mark Perryman summarised the issues in his article in the following way:
Je Suis Cantona? To identify with Eric then rather than his National Front and BNP supporting foul-mouthed verbal assailant was about taking sides. Football, from the authorities and players to the media and the fans, then and now, would excuse almost anything said at a game as ‘banter’. A collective refusal to bother with making any kind of distinction between a wind up, anti-social behaviour causing offence and criminal acts of racist abuse. Eric knew the difference.
Adam Goodes and Nicky Winmar know the difference between banter and racist abuse
Cantona proved his worth on the field – in 1996, he scored the winning goal for Manchester United in the FA cup final of that year, defeating the renowned and intimidating Liverpool side. Not his most brilliant goal, but one that lifted Manchester United out of the doldrums, bringing redemption to a team that had been underestimated and written off. In that year, Cantona hoisted the FA Cup trophy for Man-United – the first non-English captain to lift the hallowed trophy in victory. While the 1996 victory has not been forgotten, it has been overshadowed by the kung-fu kick that Cantona administered to a racist, shrieking football fan that is still the subject of discussion. He took his stand against racism – albeit in the language that someone like a BNP violent offender can understand. Yes, Matthew Simmons, the cultural-critique antagonist of Cantona’s, has a history of violent offences.
In 2013, Indigenous footballer and two-time Brownlow medalist Adam Goodes was the subject of racial abuse by a 13-year old fan. How did he react? He called the security guards, and the offending person was escorted off the field. When he was booed again in May 2015, how did Goodes respond? By performing a war dance and throwing an imaginary spear.
In 1993, at St Kilda, Indigenous footballer Nicky Winmar was subjected to a torrent of racial abuse. How did he respond? He lifted his jersey, and pointed to his chest, affirming his pride in his Indigenous heritage and culture. As Keith Parry, lecturer in Sports Management at the University of Western Sydney explained in his article “Booing Adam Goodes – racism is in the stitching of the AFL”:
Although the AFL became the first major Australian sporting code to outlaw on-field racial sledging in 1995, there continues to be too many shameful incidents of racial vilification by fans towards Indigenous AFL players. That Goodes has now been consistently booed by a variety of opposition fans for a sustained period of time suggests racial abuse may be an endemic problem.
We all have our personal preferences when it comes to sport. Some players we like, others we do not like. Some teams we support, others we do not. Granted that not every single person who booed Adam Goodes over the course of his matches is a vicious, small-minded racist. There has been an interminable debate in the pages of the Australian corporate media about whether or not the booing of Goodes is motivated by racism. This can be examined from here until the end of time, so for the purpose of clarity, let’s make a judgement call – as elaborated by Chris Graham of New Matilda magazine:
We can debate the booing of Adam Goodes till the cows come home, but it doesn’t really get us anywhere. So in the interests of moving forward, how about we negotiate a deal.
Racists, you can boo Adam Goodes all you want, and pretend it’s not racist.
The rest of the nation: We’ll continue to call it what it is. Racist.
And in the meantime, maybe the AFL can pull its finger out and actually do something practical to address the problem.
Robbie Blowers, legal practitioner and American expatriate who has adopted Australia as his home, wrote a insightful essay for Business Insider Australia. He notes that Goodes was not booed (well, no more than normal) prior to his speaking out against racism. Blowers elaborates that in many ways, Australia’s problem with racism has parallels to America’s problem with guns: they are both so deeply culturally ingrained that its practitioners and purveyors can hardly see that they are problems for the wider society. As Blowers explains:
It is a fact that Adam Goodes gets booed horrendously at football games because of his race. It is also a fact that many people out there who boo Adam Goodes are not doing it with the intention of racially vilifying him. While these two facts seem diametrically opposed, they can and do coexist. However, the people booing at these football games need to understand that, irrespective of their intentions, they are contributing to racial vilification nonetheless.
Goodes has attracted this level of hostility, precisely because he has emerged as an advocate for his people. As Nisha Thapliyal elaborates in her article for Green Left Weekly, Adam Goodes is not just an exceptional player, but stands apart because he has gone beyond philanthropic work and spoken out about the endemic racism against the First Nations of Australia that is found at all levels and sectors of Australian society. He has used his position as a sporting star not just to enrich himself, but to be an advocate for his people. Confronting racism against the Indigenous people by speaking out in the public domain will elicit a hostile reaction from those who wish to shut down any such discussion, because it confronts basic notions of ‘Australianness’, and the historical amnesia that surrounds the frontier wars waged by colonial Australia against the First Nations.
There should be no excuses for racism in sport. As Celeste Liddle elaborates in her informative article regarding the Adam Goodes issue:
If there is one lesson I’ve learnt from AFL recently, it’s that in the world of competitive contact sport, nothing is more terrifying than an Aboriginal player lobbing an invisible spear in the general direction of the crowd. What’s more, despite this imaginary projectile being, well, imaginary, it is clear that it is far more offensive to commentators than any of the racist jeers from the crowd that preceded it.
Adam Goodes threw an imaginary spear; lucky for the fans that booed him, he did not react like Eric Cantona.
Let us leave the last word to the Indigenous Australian journalist and writer, Stan Grant. He wrote a thought-provoking, poignant commentary called “I can tell you how Adam Goodes feels. Every Indigenous person has felt it“. The First Nations are estranged and marginalised, pushed to the outskirts of an otherwise wealthy society. Grant explains that his nation is marooned on the tides of history, excluded from the ‘boundless plains to share’ celebrated in Australia’s national anthem. Grant found a path to success through education and journalism; Goodes found his path through exceptional sporting prowess. But the weight of history, and the ongoing systemic exclusion of the Indigenous from the wider society, cannot be overcome so easily. It is heartening to see the groundswell of support for Goodes, indicating that there are Australians who realise that racism is not a historical artifact, but a living part of the Australian political and economic society. However, it is also high time to recognise that the political athlete, the sportsperson who stands up for their community, is a welcome and necessary component of an equitable society.