May 19, 2009

BNP invite is the wrong race card for England 2018

The bright spark who suggested inviting members of the Greater London Assembly to Monday's launch of the 2018 World Cup bid probably thought they were doing England's chances a favour. You can't have too many cheerleaders, they might have reasoned.

Wrong. Among the assembly members that received the embossed invite was BNP councillor Richard Barnbrook, a high-profile member of the far-right party. Barnbrook's invitation represents an early and damaging own-goal for England's campaign and a blow to the FA's laudable work against racism.

The more you consider the incident the less forgivable it seems. Barnbrook represents a party that has a ban on non-white candidates, but he looked on from the VIP seats as Lord Triesman, the FA chairman, praised the cultural diversity England would bring to the World Cup.

In case we didn't get the message, the audience in the Bobby Moore Suite at Wembley had been bolstered by scores of schoolchildren drawn from the numerous communities whose presence in the UK Barnbrook's party so resents.

The FA's commitment to diversity did not extend to inviting Baroness Amos, Hope Powell or John Barnes, the only non-white members of the bid team, to share the platform with Triesman. These omissions would not have mattered half as much had the BNP not got an invite.

Barnes it turns out was unable to attend, but it is worth recalling that the winger's greatest achievement was to reach the pinnacle of the game despite routinely facing racist abuse from the terraces. We can guess how the BNP views his 79 England caps.

Barnbrook's presence at the launch also undermines one of England's unspoken advantages over their main European rivals Spain. The racist abuse of footballers and even motor racing drivers that has occurred in Spain in recent seasons is something the FA had hoped to exploit in its favour, arguing that England equals tolerance. Barnbrook's invite makes that equation harder to prove.

To be fair to the 2018 team they acknowledged their error in inviting Barnbrook as soon as complaints from supporters groups and politicians reached their ears. It should never have come to that however, and the furore serves as an early reminder that the bidding spotlight will illuminate England 2018's flaws just as clearly as its virtues.

This was a self-inflicted wound and a grubby, embarrassing one at that, but the bid will recover. Perhaps more profound will be the impact on the FA's wider work against racism.

The football authorities are quick to take credit for their work in tackling discrimination and there is much to be proud of. The Kick It Out campaign was pioneering and remains the benchmark for programs of its kind, playing a huge role in lowering the tolerance of racist abuse at football grounds and using the game to spread the virtues of tolerance more widely.

For those involved with Kick It Out, including its chairman Lord Ouseley, an FA councillor, Monday's events were deeply dispiriting. The FA, Premier League and Football League are all sincere in their commitment to tackle racism, but Ouseley and fellow travellers from all sectors of the game know that if football is to become truly accessible then it is not enough for the FA to talk the talk. It has to walk the walk too, and on Monday it fell flat on its face.


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