Sport stereotyping has reared its ugly head again as English football discusses the genetic fiction that blacks are faster and stronger than whites. In sports, it is not the colour of the skin, but what's in the heart, that counts.
LONDON: When Zinedine Zidane is fit and in the form he displayed in orchestrating Real Madrid's 4-1 destruction of Valencia, could anyone seriously dispute that he is the best player in the world's most populous sport?
The match was in its 93d minute on Sunday, on an almost waterlogged pitch at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium. Zidane had already created the first goal and scored the second against a Valencia defence that had conceded only eight goals in 15 league matches this season.
Just for fun, it seemed, he summoned up one last thrust. From the centre circle, Zidane swayed away from Miguel Angel Mista, a younger and fresher opponent who had played less than half the game. Then, with bold strides and quick feet, Zidane splashed through surface water, brushing aside the normally tenacious Ruben Baraja.
Forty paces on, spotting the movement of Javier Portillo, the youngest and the most potent of Madrid's starlets, Zizou slid the ball inch-perfect beyond the last defender, Roberto Ayala. Zidane ushered the kid onto the pass, and Portillo, with boyish glee, gobbled up his first goal in La Liga.
It happens that Zidane is French and Portillo is Spanish. Both are tall, slender and strong. Portillo is considered white. Zidane is seen in his home country as a member of an ethnic minority because he is the son of Berber immigrants from North Africa.
Why should this column, which has always maintained that football is blind to colour or origin, mention the tone of their skin? Because the year has kicked off with claims that black athletes are so inherently swifter and stronger than whites that there is little point in the white child aspiring in sports.
What utter rot. What strange reversal this is of the equally myopic, equally crass rhetoric of 20 years ago when legions of coaches deemed that Negroes, the then fashionable term for people of African or Afro-Caribbean descent, were too “cowardly” to compete at games.
The nonsense of that era could be demolished in two words – Pele and Ali. Which of those was a coward, the world's most wonderful footballer or its incomparable heavyweight boxer?
A glance then, as now, at the world football champion, Brazil, should ridicule the question of race. Pele's Brazil, and now Ronaldo's, blended black, white and every shade in between. The only consideration for selection was skill. Zidane's teammates in the all-white kit of Madrid on Sunday were six “white” men and four black.
Magnificent though he is, Zidane said what he always says: his platform is the team.
Why, then, does the race, even in reverse, rear its head in the English league where two thirds of the talent is imported - and where racial barriers have never been lower?
Teddy Sheringham, the son of a (white) south London policeman and the individual regarded as the English player who most uses his head, said in an interview that his 14-year-old son Charlie looks like him, plays like him, “but will have to be better than me if he wants to be a professional.”
In what way?
“I'm not sure I can mention this in racial terms,” said Sheringham, before continuing: “The game is harder now. There are a lot more black players playing the game, and there is no denying it: black players are naturally bigger and stronger and quicker than white players.”
Within days, John Barnes, born in Jamaica but welcomed as a marvellously fluid mover down England's left flank, put his name to a 1,000 word article claiming: “Teddy was only stating an obvious truth. Political correctness cannot disguise the reality that blacks do, indeed, have a physical advantage in certain sports requiring speed and strength. This is not discriminatory, it is a genetic fact.”
It is genetic fiction.
To be sure, black sportsmen and women can look dominant among Olympic sprinters, overpowering in the boxing ring, taller than tall at the basketball net and so on.
But a generation ago, the cricketers from Barnes's own West Indian background bestrode the game with their elegant batsmen and their intimidating fast bowlers. Now the cricket kings are Australians - and the blond Brett Lee hurtles the ball down at 99 miles per hour (158km an hour), faster than any of them.
So much for genetics.
The myth of sport stereotyping was exposed at the 1988 Olympics in South Korea when Anthony Nesty, from Surinam, outpaced the world's fastest swimmers in the 100m butterfly. Over breakfast the next morning, his father, Ronald, bridled at the suggestion that his child was unique.
“My son won because he worked,” said Ronald Nesty. “We lack swimming facilities in Surinam, but Anthony went to an American university where he had a pool and could train all hours. Black people, white people, Chinese, Koreans, Indians, we are all human aren't we? Look, you are white, but if your throat was cut, I could save you with my blood couldn't I?”
While the Nesty family was debunking the theory that black bones were too heavy to be buoyant, Arthur Ashe, the 1979 Wimbledon champion, was eloquently pointing out: “black culture spends too much time, energy and effort raising, praising and teaching black children as to the dubious glories of professional sport.”
They compete because the opportunity is there to transcend inequality, because sport proves there is no reason beneath the skin to presume one race superior to another. Ashe felt that too few black Americans aspired to be teachers, lawyers, doctors.
Pele cherishes a personal memento of Mexico City, and his meeting there at the 1970 World Cup with Bobby Moore. The Brazilian and the Englishman exchanged shirts, smiles and embraces. Their bared torsos, black and white, were uncannily alike in shape.
While Sheringham ponders the future in black and white, I suggest he looks at Zidane, a man of average build.
Or even at Gianfranco Zola, a tiny competitor who adorns the same league as Sheringham. Zola stands 5-foot-5 (1.65m), he is 37 years old, and he remains so elusive, so enduring, so effective that Chelsea wants him to renew his contract.
This miniature footballer demonstrates that it is not the power of a man's muscle, but the size of his desire that counts. – IHT