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Racism in football: ‘It’s not black and white’

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Story highlights

CNN investigates the problem of racism in soccer in a new documentary

England has been particularly hit by recent incidents involving racial abuse

Black players have grown in prominence in England since the 1970s

The English Premier League is now one of the most multicultural of any nation

Editor’s Note: CNN’s feature show on racism in football, “World Sport presents: It’s Not Black & White,” airs on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET (0200 GMT), Sunday 6 a.m. (1100 GMT) and Monday 3 a.m. ET (0800 GMT).

CNN —  

“The letter stated that, as I ran through the tunnel, they were going to throw acid in my face. I was petrified and I probably never moved so much and so fast on a soccer field in my life.”

Clyde Best is one of football’s pioneers – the first black player of the modern era to establish himself in England’s top division.

The reaction he faced from fans on the terraces more than 40 years ago was extreme, mirroring the strong resistance to immigrants landing on Britain’s shores back then.

Recent incidents have shown that racism is still a big problem in these more multicultural times. World football’s president, Sepp Blatter, infamously claimed last year that racism is not an issue on the pitch, but he has been proved sadly wrong.

England, in particular, is dealing with the fallout of two high-profile player on player controversies. Fans, meanwhile, have been arrested for racially abusing players at stadiums and on the Internet.

Racial tension started growing in the UK after World War Two, when immigrants began pouring into the country from the British Empire’s colonies around the world – notably the West Indies.

The number of non-whites in England climbed from just a few thousand in 1945 to about 1.45 million in 1970.

Just two years before that, Conservative politician Enoch Powell warned of “rivers of blood” because of increasing immigration.

Also in 1968, Best arrived from his native Bermuda to play for London club West Ham United.

“People weren’t used to seeing people of color on the field in those days. I was always taught that you’re not playing for yourself, you’re playing for the people who are coming behind you, and that’s what kept me going,” Best told CNN.

“There were certain things that were said and done, but you’ve got to put them in them in the back of your mind and be strong and do what you have to do.”

Defining a country

Best’s persistence in coping with the hate mail and the fan abuse – some of it from his own club’s supporters – helped paved the way for Viv Anderson, England’s first black international.

Back in the 1920s, London-born Jack Leslie was denied the chance to represent his country due to his Jamaican parentage.

At the time English football was very much a sport for the working class, largely played by the working class, and had been since the sport’s founding days in the 1860s.

“As the game became more popular it was the beginning of the industrial revolution in England,” says English players’ union chief executive Gordon Taylor.

“Workers were attracted to the big cities and as a result all of the heavy industries, with steel and ship building and coal mining for example. Workers had their Saturday afternoons off and it became their recreation.”

Making history

On November 29, 1978, Nottingham-born Anderson stepped onto the hallowed turf of England’s national stadium, Wembley, to represent his country against the former Czechoslovakia – which, like its Eastern European neighbors, has also had problems with racist factions at football matches.

The England manager was Ron Greenwood, who also brought Best to West Ham.

“To play for your country and for 100,000 people at home against the Czechs, who had a good reputation then, you don’t want to let yourself down, let your parents down, let the people you know down,” Anderson said.

“The black thing never came into my head one bit. It was about being a professional footballer.”

Anderson won the European Cup twice with Nottingham Forest, but it was three men at another club, West Bromwich Albion, who really pushed black players into the spotlight in England.

Raising the bar

Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson and Laurie Cunningham were dubbed the “Three Degrees” by their manager Ron Atkinson after a visit to the club’s ground by the U.S. female vocal group.