Silence in the FA's own backyard about the chants of England fans to protect some fantasy self-image renders all its other sermons meaningless
Reporting from the Mall during the Queen's jubilee celebrations last summer, I remember an impromptu rendition of God Save the Queen and feeling quite surprised that its fourth line wasn't "No surrender". If you're used to hearing the national anthem at England football matches, you get so conditioned to those words being bellowed over the four notes between "God save the Queen" and "Send her victorious" that their absence is practically the twitch of a phantom limb.
There was no such lacuna when England played San Marino last Friday, naturally, with the chant so beloved of Combat 18 and the National Front clearly audible on the TV feed, and not just during the national anthem. Those in the stadium, however, could hear even more. "Rio Ferdinand, we know what you are" – a chant whose original version – "Anton Ferdinand, we know what you are" made its implication-freighted debut right after the then-England captain John Terry was accused of calling Ferdinand's brother a "black cunt". And a newer effort, which went: "Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, Put Rio on the top, Put Anton in the middle, And then burn the fucking lot."
Another week, another unfortunate dent in the English game's fantasy self-image. Isn't this sort of thing supposed to be one of those "knavish tricks" of foreigners referred to in the actual second verse of the national anthem? Racism is something lesser races do.
Yet so psychiatrically complex has the business of following England now got, you'll note, that bilious songs are now sung not just about our own players who are not playing, but about the brothers of our own players who are not playing – although obviously they're not truly "ours", in the sense that "we" know what they really are.
It's only a minority, this Mississippi Burning tribute act. It's always a minority – isn't it? – which is enough for some, apparently because you don't have to deal with it unless it's a majority. A minority of one fan threw the banana which John Barnes is shown backheeling in that famous photo, which makes you wonder why the FA ever bothered belatedly addressing the actions of that sort of minority at all.
It certainly doesn't appear to be bothering now. It is difficult to decide which is the more distasteful: the racism of a vocal minority of fans, or the week-long, studied silence on the matter from an FA always so quick to condemn supporters of other nations for hateful chanting. Only on Friday afternoon did it finally issue a statement claiming it would not accept racism, and condemning the No Surrender chants – and it transparently did that only because it had emerged on Friday morning that Football Against Racism in Europe (Fare) had lodged a formal complaint with Fifa.
What a familiar tale of catch-up. Can the FA really still be so surpassingly obtuse that it fails to realise that silence in its own backyard renders all of its other sermons completely meaningless? The next intonations on Serbian fans, or whoever it may be, will carry all the polished hypocrisy of Tony Blair offering one of those historical apologies for someone else's unjust war. Any old blazer can think they're Martin Luther King for the afternoon and fart out some censorious sermon on how unacceptable it all is. What takes real leadership, however, is finding the words and means to ask the very hardest questions of your own people.
The longer the FA fails to do so, the more others will try to fill the vacuum. Having admitted its own observers were not at the game, and that its submission to the governing body in part relies on media comment (presumably including Oliver Holt's excellent Mirror column on the matter, Fare will find itself in all kinds of evidential knots. Rather too much has been made of the fact that the ultimate sanction available to Fifa would be forcing England to play a game behind closed doors – it's unlikely to come to that. But the temptation to censure England might be Fifa's to resist, given how many lectures it probably feels it has taken from these shores about its own useless stand on racism. You can't really blame Fifa – and I type those words as someone who could cheerfully blame the odious Sepp Blatter, president of that organisation, and to a lesser extent Uefa's Michel Platini, for pretty much everything.
As for racism in English football, I never remember precisely where we're supposed to be in the great journey out of darkness, but I expect that, until last season, we'd reached the same point feminism had: the place where things are judged by many to have "gone too far the other way". The Terry and Luis Suarez furores, however, made it impossible to cling to the prevailing assumption we had somehow eradicated racism from football while it remains a problem in the society the game reflects.
The most encouraging thing that can be said is that those cases were taken seriously and discussion of the San Marino chanting made the mainstream, where in many other countries (and previously here) they never would have. Maybe the FA has a dream. But if the people who run that organisation think they can realise it on current form, then God, they really are dreaming.