- 14 Jun 21
Racist attitudes amongst officials and players have too often been apparent when the Hot Press football team has taken to the field. But as the encounter between President Michael D. Higgins and Denise Chaila in our new issue – and the attendant front cover – symbolise, 21st century Ireland is increasingly a country that embraces diversity.
The last time I counted, over the course of the past five years, footballers from 27 different countries had played for the mighty men of Hot Press Munchengladbach 1891. As it happens, contributors from more or less the same number of nationalities have written for Hot Press.
I was going to say that our footballers came from North, South, East and West, and then I realised: there haven't actually been very many from the North, unless you include Co. Antrim. In fact, to a man, they have all been from points south of Malin Head. We've had a decent sprinkling from Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Albania, Romania and the Czech Republic.
North America has been well represented with two of our current first eleven – and a bunch more over recent years – coming from Mexico. The biggest single source has been Brazil, with at least ten of our 2021 squad hailing from the greatest football nation on earth, and there've been loads more from all over that vast country, who have since returned to play for the likes of Palmeiras, Santos or Corinthians. Of course they have.
We've had two players from Japan, both Grade A, brilliant warriors. We've had one from South Korea.
But, in continental terms, Africa has been by far the biggest source of Hot Press players. They've come from Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Benin, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some of these players were born here of immigrant or mixed parents, but many were – or are – themselves recent arrivals. It's been a real melting pot, with great and enduring friendships established on the football field that extend into every aspect of life. Behind the scenes we have been able to assist with visa applications, occasional legal advice and in some instances letters of recommendation for full citizenship that have helped applications over the line.
Our attitude has always been based on a fundamental guiding principle: there is only one race, and that is the human race. The colour of your skin or the place you grew up in are mere details. If you tell me your story, I will be enriched and know a little bit more about human life and about the place you grew up in. But once you are with us, you are one of us. You are among friends.
UNLUCKY OWN GOAL
Sadly, that is not the way everyone looks at it. In Hot Press, some of us have seen racism in operation at very close quarters; and how unconscious and insidious it can so often be. None of it is anything less than an embarrassment. But it can be much, much worse than that.
So let's be clear: I have no interest whatsoever in scapegoating anyone, in naming names, individuals, clubs or referees. I'll leave that to the Twitter mob. In general, officials do their best to try to combat the shit they see and hear. But at times, especially during games, it has got ugly and the system has failed.
Name calling. The use of the N-word. Conjoining the word black with one obscenity or another. And taunts that are far too familiar for anyone to pretend that racism does not exist in Ireland. As Ken McCue of Sport Against Racism in Ireland (SARI) keeps telling anyone who will listen: it does, and it needs to be addressed. I remember the goalkeeper on one opposing team running a full 40 yards – and frothing at the mouth – to scream in a black player's face: "Go back to where you came from." It was a straight red card – or should have been – but it didn't happen. The thug was allowed to play the full 90 minutes.
Should you walk off? Abandon ship? Give up the ghost? The black players who have been part of the Hot Press set-up would be the last to argue for that. They by far prefer to keep playing football. And they also laugh, on occasion, at our sensitivities: "It's okay, bro. That's not racism just stupidity."
But I know it when I see it, and there are times when it is so truly, deeply dispiriting it'd make you squirm. In particular, it's shocking the extent to which some referees have internalised the rank prejudices that were habitually trotted out on TV over the years by ludicrously ignorant and jingoistic pundits in the UK, who should know, or should have known, better. We've all heard the ignoramus' charge-sheet. That 'foreigners' – that's a bit of a code word – are divers. That they may be talented but they haven't got the bottle. That they'd be great players, if only they knew how to use their brains. And so on.
In fairness, these utterly risible, pathetically stupid and wrong-headed clichés have been completely discredited in broadcast-land, and – better late than never – are no longer acceptable on any of the mainstream television stations. But the myths persist and you hear them trotted out far too often in football in Ireland – by opposition players and, sadly, sometimes also by referees, if not in word then in deed.
You can see it in the decisions they make.
A lot of the time, referees don't know that they are being prejudiced, but they are: it could be described as unconscious bias. I remember an incident where one of our African wingers – having beaten three players in a mazy dribble – was felled aggressively with a high tackle that left stud marks on his previous stud marks. It was a blatant, dangerous foul but the referee waved play on. When I shouted to the referee that it was a foul, he turned to me and said, with a knowing smirk, "He should have passed it much earlier."
The truth was that he had made a few Irish lads look flat-footed – and so he "deserved a clatter." The fact that the challenge might have broken a leg was subordinate to the implied karma: that he had it coming to him, fannying around like that. This shit was from a referee.
And so, the foul vitriol heaped on Irish defender Cyrus Christie on social media, after a woefully unlucky own goal in the World Cup qualifier against Denmark in November 2017 – the ball ricocheted off the post, hit him and crossed the line – did not come as a surprise. Nor does the fact that so many of the bright new lights coming through in Irish football, many of Nigerian descent – future stars like Michael Obafemi, Andrew Omobamidele and Chiedoze Ogbene included – talk about having been subjected to serial racial abuse along the way. It upsets some people less than others. But the truth is that no one should have to put up with it.
FROM THE WOMB
Music has not been exempt.
Denise Chaila is one of the most fascinating new artists to emerge in Ireland over the past decade. Of Zambian background, she has been active on the hip-hop and spoken word scene since 2012. Her debut EP, Duel Citizenship, released in 2019, dealt with the issue of migration: of beig made to feel like a stranger in your own home. In the title song, she made a play on questions that she had been asked more than once too often: "Where are you from, originally? / Where are you from? Originally?"
And she went on to answer them.
"I am tired of proving that I am as much Denise / As I am Mwaka / So cén scéal? / Because I learned how to be Irish / Knowing that some people would always think / I was beyond the pale / I learned how to be Zambian with too little Bemba / To prove I haven't lost my way."
Has she lost her way? She hasn't. She speaks with great eloquence of the experience of adapting to a different country, a different culture, and how it affects the individual. How it enriches.
"We are a remix of anthems and flags / We are both the signature and the line connecting dots / That too, not yet, know their correlation / So no, these are not alien flowers/ But yeah, we're extraterrestrial / Because we've been nurtured by many soils."
And there's more.
"Yes, we have been replanted / But we can't forget how we got here / Still fresh off the boat / So if you throw us in off the deep end / We'll show you we know how to float."
"We are unashamed of our heritage / We have nothing to prove."
That statement of confidence and strength is what all citizens – or aspiring citizens – of the new Ireland are entitled to feel. But Denise Chaila goes further: the song 'Duel Citizenship' ends on a beautifully optimistic note.
"But you will see the beauty when this forest grows," Denise promises, "You will see us for what we are / We are the same stem with different leaves / The same love, with different means / The same heart with different dreams / The same journey, just with different wings/ So where are you from?/ Where are you from, originally?"
The answer is, in truth, the same the world over. Place, time and circumstance may shape our destiny, but the truth is more fundamental. We come from the womb. And in that we are all completely equal.
ANSWERS ON A POSTCARD
These things were playing on our minds when the possibility of interviewing the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, was raised. The occasion: he has a powerful new book out, entitled Reclaiming the European Street. In it, the President explores the inter-connected themes of European democracy, the role of the State, citizenship, sustainability, migration, the historic connection with – and brutal exploitation of – Africa and what we owe that vast and in so many ways magnificent continent. And, needless to say, a whole lot more besides.
Reading it, the thought took shape that we should find a fresh way of engaging with the issues that the President speaks and writes about with such urgency and precision: that we should explore the possibility of doing something completely different. With the lyrics of 'Duel Citizenship' clattering away in the psychic background, and a growing sense that something very special might be in the offing, I thought: why not see if we can get Denise Chaila to interview the President for Hot Press?
Well, there's nothing to be lost by asking.
The rest of the Hot Press crew got on board straight away: it seemed like a good idea. And so I made the calls: first Denise, and then the President. As everyone let it sink in, it felt like this might just have the makings of an historic moment. A black, female Zambian-Irish rapper of remarkable talent and potential gets the opportunity to sit down for a tete-a-tete with one of the pre-eminent political figures on the world stage right now: himself a writer, poet, academic, politician, orator, President – and former Hot Press columnist.
It took the guts of six weeks to stitch it all together – and so it finally came to pass that, about a month ago, the wagon train rolled into Áras an Uachtaráin. Having introduced Denise and God Knows and MuRli of the Narolane crew to the President, all but three slipped out into the garden.
Hot Press photographer Miguel Ruiz remained inside to take pictures, but otherwise, we left Denise and President Michael D. Higgins to it.
As they settled either side of the wide dining-room table, the recorder ready to roll, the symbolism was powerful.
This, I thought, is the modern Ireland I have always dreamed of, captured in a singular nutshell. That a feisty young black female rapper can get a chance to sit with the President, and fire some questions in his direction, and get careful and considered answers, is as good a starting point as you can get. But it highlights something else too: that, with Michael D. as President, more than ever, this is a nation that respects diversity, culture and the energies and passions of youth.
This Ireland is a place of contrasts – there is a lot wrong that needs to be fixed – but also one of welcomes. Racism exists here – but with the President leading by example, it is, too, a breeding ground for intellectual curiosity: for ideas; for nuances; for talk; and, crucially, for listening.
A place too, as both Michael D. Higgins and Denise Chaila confirm, for poets and dreamers; and moreso, even, it is a place for people, also, who are striving, each in their own way, to make the world – and this country as part of it – better, fairer and kinder; more generous, just and egalitarian.
So what happened? What was said? Did they spark? Were there fireworks? And where might it all lead?
Answers on a postcard please. In the meantime, pick up the new issue of Hot Press, and turn to Page 16. What you will find there is nothing more or less than Limerick rapper Denise Chaila's personal story of, and reflections on, the day she met the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins – who, as it happens, is also from Limerick...
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