John Barnes
John Barnes Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Dubai: Liverpool legend John Barnes believes that in order to eradicate racism from the football terraces, society as a whole must recognise the problem and where it stems from.

The Jamaican-born Reds, Watford and England hero famously back-heeled a banana skin off the pitch that was hurled at him during a game at Everton back in 1988 in an act of defiance against the bigots.

Thirty years on, another Jamaican-born Englishman — Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling — was on Wednesday honoured for his public stance against bigotry and hatred. His admirable defiance of the racists has been in the public eye ever since he was abused by Chelsea fans during City’s 2-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge in December, which led to the forward posting on Instagram, calling out newspapers’ portrayal of black players.

The issue was thrust further up the agenda when Sterling was on England duty against Montenegro in Podgorica on March 25, when he, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Danny Rose called for tough sanctions after they were abused during the match.

On Friday, Uefa ordered Montenegro to play their next home game behind closed doors as a result of the incidents, and their football federation was fined $22,000 (Dh80,806).

While punishing the guilty in such cases is all well and good, Barnes believes it is not enough and the authorities are looking in all the wrong places for both someone to blame and a solution to the problem.

“Surely if Sterling says that the stadium in Montenegro should be shut down for the sake of a few fans, he should be saying the same thing about Chelsea, because he got racially abused there,” Barnes, who was capped 79 times for England and was part of the Liverpool team who last won the English league back in 1990, told Gulf News in an exclusive interview.

“He didn’t say that Chelsea should be closed down and be kicked out of the league. I think we need to be looking closer to home rather than look at what’s going on in another country. We like to talk about the problems in Eastern Europe but we are having problems here as well.”

Barnes — who is in Dubai for the DHL Open on May 2, the first event of the 2019 DHL Swing Against Cancer Golf Series — is also concerned about proposed actions by teams who are subjected to alleged racial abuse, including growing calls for matches to be halted and players to be taken off the field of play should such an incident occur.

“The solution is not to walk off the pitch,” he said. “In the past few months, we have seen managers take their team off because of abuse from fans and, in one case, allegedly by a linesman. I do not support that. What happens if your team is losing 3-0? You are going to have a problem. If you are winning fine, but if you are losing, you are giving your fans an incentive to abuse so the players walk off and the game is abandoned.

“Not only that, but what if you are losing 3-0 and you walk off the field because you claim you heard abuse and no one else has heard it? It will cause more problems than it will solve.

“In Montenegro, Raheem Sterling said he didn’t hear it but Danny Rose did. I’m not saying that was what happened, but you are going to open up a can of worms as to where is the interpretation of what is abuse and what is not when the players are on the field. Who said it? How many people said it? How many people heard it?”

While Barnes has concerns over knee-jerk reactions to recent events, he applauds Sterling’s bravery for standing up against the bigots. However, he thinks the problem is not with the ‘Beautiful Game’ and its supporters, but something ingrained much deeper in society as a whole.

“I think it’s great that it is being addressed and people are dealing with problems as they arise, but they are coming up with the wrong solutions,” Barnes said.

“Only through education and people understanding why people want to be racist and dealing with racism as a wider issue, can you get to the root of this problem. This is not a problem in football, it is a problem in society. It is in all walks of life, not just football, and that is where it needs to be rooted out. Football can solve nothing, but society can. Before you are a football fan, you are a member of society. You are not a racist football fan, you are a racist member of society who happens to go to football matches. Everyone wants to absolve themselves by saying it’s not our problem, it’s football’s problem, and so we are going about it completely the wrong way.”