At least SA soccer doesn’t have a Raheem Sterling problem
There's a lot wrong with SA football, but nothing close to the filthy, racist saga surrounding the Manchester City player
It was not a dark and stormy night. The darkness that would have cloaked Orlando Stadium was dispelled by brilliant light, and another summer of Joburg’s magnificent storms had passed.
A blast of the referee’s whistle cut through the already wintry air at a quarter-past-seven on April 20 2013 to signal the start of the first leg of Orlando Pirates’ CAF Champions League round of 16 tie against TP Mazembe.
Pirates fielded a side that differed significantly from what would have been their first-choice combination, but the game was barely a minute old when Onyekachi Okonkwo made the ball his and used it to write a line of poetry.
From his foot it swelled upward like an anthem, curled like a hand around a loved one’s hip, and found a home, snug safe and spectacular, in the right-hand corner of the goal.
The net shook in silent applause while all around thousands took the cold into their lungs and expelled hot adulation.
Pirates were greedy for more and flowed upfield relentlessly, but with a minute left in the first half the visitors muddled their way all the way to the six-yard box and equalised. Boring goal, but they all count.
Ten minutes after the resumption Collins Mbesuma put Pirates back in front after capitalising on a moment of defensive dawdle. Zambia’s finest was on hand – on foot? – again in the 92nd, banging home the penalty earned when he was brought down in the area.
Done, 3-1. Thank you and good night. A fine time was had by all, except that my experience was interrupted every few minutes by a polite tap on the shoulder.
The first time it happened I was left intrigued. I turned to the side from which the tap had come, my left, to see a man holding a photograph of three smiling men. The bloke in the middle of the picture was, like me, white, looked about my age and had a vaguely similar face. But he wasn’t me.
The man who tapped me on the shoulder had found the photo under a seat two away from me, assumed I had dropped it, and was trying to, he thought, return it to its owner.
I smiled and shook my head, and after a moment of puzzlement in which he looked at the picture, then at me, and back at the picture, he put it back where he had found it.
That meant everyone who saw me and the photograph picked it up and tapped me on the shoulder. It didn’t help that I was sitting in a row that bordered a concourse, on which there was plenty of foot traffic and many picker-uppers.
It also didn’t help that I was, as far as I could see, the only paleface in that block of seats. Logic said that had to be me smiling for the camera with my mates.
I thought of accepting the next kind return of what wasn’t mine with good grace and ending my slow-burning irritation.
But what if the rightful owner pitched up, certain he had lost his property in the vicinity, and couldn’t find it because I had put it out of sight? And what if I didn’t see him because, finally, I could get on with watching the bloody game?
And what if he saw me watching the game, tapped me on the shoulder wanting to ask if I had seen a photograph lying there, and I turned and snapped: “For fuck sakes! It’s not me!”
Which is not unlike a man called Mike answering a slew of calls from people asking to speak to Steve and being told they have the wrong number. This goes on for hours until, in the dead of night, the phone rings again: “Hello. Steve here. Any messages for me?”
Pardon, if you will, the long and winding road to get to the point. Which is: There’s a lot wrong with football in SA, from the grass suffering when heavyweight administrators feud, to a shockingly negligent approach towards development, to the men’s national team’s too often playing like the boys of their nickname and so going nowhere on the international stage, to football-minded South Africans refusing to see that we don’t play a game anywhere near as good as the game we talk.
Actually, that’s only half the point. Here’s the other half: At least we don’t have a Raheem Sterling problem.
Sterling has become a target for racist abuse. The latest incident occurred at Stamford Bridge on Saturday when, playing for Manchester City against Chelsea, he was set upon verbally by home-side supporters as he stood near the touchline.
Photographs of the moment show a lumpy outcrop of men in the front row of fans, their mouths irregularly agape with foulness, their eyes fiery with fury. The spectators in the row behind them are all either smug, smiling, or laughing. All of the people in the picture are white.
Besides, that is, Man City’s Riyad Mahrez, who is Algerian. And Sterling, the object of all that racist filth, who somehow manages to light up his black, bearded face with a bemused smile.
Sterling’s expression only adds to the starkness of the contrast with those behind him. Chelsea have suspended the owners of four of those awful faces from attending matches and police are investigating claims of racial abuse.
One of the fans has been named and interviewed by, what else, the pukeworthy Daily Mail. And, wouldn’t you know it, Colin Wing protests his innocence.
“I’m deeply ashamed by my own behaviour and I feel really bad,” the Mail quoted Wing as saying.
Well, that’s a start …
“But I didn’t call him a black cunt, I called him a Manc cunt.”
So, even if we believed him, that makes it all right? Wing’s parents must be so proud. Mercifully, there’s a chance they’re dead: Their wonderful son is 60 years old.
By the sound of him, again as quoted by the Mail, he hasn’t spent that time learning anything valuable about life: “I was completely out of order, but I’ve lost my job and my season ticket now so everybody’s got what they wanted. So why can’t they leave me alone?”
Because, you waste of human spark, you caused this. Now you are suffering the consequences. And don’t for a second paint yourself as a victim.
That’s exactly what the execrable tabloid press are trying to do. Because not to would mean not being able to write headlines like: “£180,000-a-week England flop Raheem shows off blinging house he bought for his mum – complete with jewel-encrusted bathroom – hours after flying home in disgrace from Euro 2016”.
When Sterling was five his mother moved with her three children from a hard life in Jamaica to, in some ways, a harder life on a London social housing estate. Being able to repay her for some of what she did to ensure his success has to be more important than anything in mere football, and to hell with the bathroom fittings.
Sterling also attracted the attention of the nether regions of the newspaper world and gun-control advocates when he had an M16 rifle tattooed onto his right – or shooting – calf. Turns out the illustration is a tribute to his father, who was shot to death, prompting Sterling to promise he would “never touch a gun”. At least some parents raise decent kids, unlike the Wings.
But the tabloids are the tabloids, and what can you do besides deplore the rubbish they write. You would hope Sterling’s fellow footballers would recognise racism when they see it. Instead, they’re trying to whitesplain it away.
“You cannot condone this racism,” former Premier League striker Dave Kitson said in an interview with Talk Sport in November. “In any way, shape or form it’s disgusting.”
So far, so good. But wait …
“I do believe that players make themselves a target. Y’know, why Raheem Sterling? There’s other black players on the pitch, okay. Every single week.
“I just think we have a duty of care to ourselves as footballers to be a little bit careful with social media and the way we portray ourselves. Y’know, jealousy is an awful thing amongst the human race.
“And I trawled through Raheem Sterling’s Instagram feed this morning to find that a lot of what he put on in his early days has now been deleted. And it was: ‘Look at my cars, look at the house, look at this bathroom, look at this, look at that, look at me.’ And that’s going to antagonise people.
“Now that’s no excuse, whatsoever, for racially abusing somebody. But you sow a seed amongst people who are not racists not to like that particular person because they don’t want to see that in their faces every day. Now when you go onto Raheem Sterling’s Instagram it’s: ‘Here’s a goal I scored last week, here’s me in a kid’s hospital ... ’
“So someone’s got hold of him and said, ‘Look, you can’t do that anymore.’ But that seed has already been planted in people’s heads.”
Funny how that seed doesn’t get into the heads of people who pour over the careers of celebrity players like David Beckham – tattoos, famous wife, messy extramarital life and all – or John Terry who mocked Americans in the wake of the September 11 attacks and had an affair with a teammate’s partner – or Eric Cantona who launched a kung-fu kick on an opposition supporter who said something he didn’t like.
Or indeed Kitson, who feels qualified to judge the behaviour of other players despite his 18-month ban for “failing to provide a breath sample and failing to co-operate” after being stopped by police while driving late one night in 2008.
Now there’s a thought: What might have been said and written about Sterling had he “failed to co-operate” and taken Cantona’s course of action at Stamford Bridge on Saturday?
And another thought: Were Beckham, Terry, Cantona and Kitson considered all right, warts and all, because they are also all white?
And still another: What exactly has Sterling made himself a target of? Spending money while black?
So take a bow, football in Mzansi. Problems? Many. Racism? Nil. Whites? On April 20 2013, in a particular bank of seats bordering a concourse at Orlando Stadium, one.
And, no, that’s not him in the bloody picture.