Rio Ferdinand fears a footballer could be stabbed in a Monica Seles-style situation unless there is a severe crackdown on the rise of anti-social behaviour in the game – but despairs that calls for points deductions are not touted in incidents of racist abuse.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with Telegraph Sport following the attacks on Jack Grealish and Chris Smalling over the weekend that shamed football, Ferdinand believes players’ lives could be at risk if the sport’s authorities fail to adopt a hard line against such thuggery, including points deductions.
But the former Manchester United and England defender also claimed that attitudes towards racism in the country were reflected by the calls for more severe punishments in the Grealish case than alleged incidents of racist abuse against Raheem Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang this season.
And Ferdinand believes it is time a prominent white footballer finally took a public stand against racism after claiming racists were unlikely to pay any attention to what a black player had to say about discrimination.
Citing the case of Seles, the former tennis player who was stabbed on court in 1993, Ferdinand expressed concerns that football could experience a similar incident and condemned the 14-week prison sentence handed to Paul Mitchell, the Birmingham fan who ran on to the pitch and punched the Aston Villa captain Grealish during Sunday’s Midlands derby.
“The problem is if you allow things to go on and don’t nip them in the bud with severe penalties then they do become habit,” Ferdinand said. “The guy who attacked Grealish got 14 weeks in prison. If there are little, tippy-tappy punishments for things like that people will say, ‘That’s easy, that’s in and out [of jail] – not a problem’.
“There has to be a stiffer deterrent to stop these people committing these stupid, mindless acts. We saw the events at the weekend but they could have been a lot worse. You take your mind back to times like Monica Seles. That was something that ruined someone’s career and was a harrowing thing to see.
“It was far more brutal than what we see at the weekend but those are the possibilities. There’s no doubt in my mind it could happen [in football]. Unless there’s a proper deterrent put in place I don’t see these things changing so I think you have got to deduct points from clubs. And the punishment for the individual has got to be much more severe than 14 weeks in a cell.
“He [Mitchell] will still be back in time for the last final couple of games of the season. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”
Yet Ferdinand finds it troubling that calls for points deductions against clubs whose fans attack players have rarely been mentioned in relation to cases of racial abuse. Aubameyang, the Arsenal striker, had a banana thrown at him during his team’s 4-2 win over Tottenham in December. Sterling, the Manchester City player, felt he was racially abused by a Chelsea supporter during his team’s game at Stamford Bridge the same month, although the fan in question has denied there was a racial element to the abuse.
Ferdinand himself became embroiled in one of the most high-profile racism cases in English football history when his brother, Anton, was racially abused by John Terry, the former Chelsea and England captain, who was banned for four matches by the FA but cleared of racial abuse by Westminster Magistrates’ Court.
“A lot of people have said – and rightly so – that after the incident with Grealish they should deduct points against Birmingham,” said Ferdinand, who was talking at United’s Carrington ground as part of an event involving BT Sport and the Premier League’s disability programme and the Manchester United Foundation.
“But when it was Raheem Sterling, when it was my brother, when it was the incident with Aubameyang, I didn’t hear mention about points getting deducted. So you tell me what that says? That paints the picture right there. ‘Oh, it’s all right to be racist, we can just give them a fine and ban him for a few games’.
“But then someone comes on the pitch and attacks a player and it’s ‘deduct points’. That shows you the issue.
“The powers that be have to act more severely and show people that these things won’t be tolerated. There are also so many more prominent people in the game who can have more of a say but choose not to, which is sometimes disappointing as well.”
Ferdinand believes it is time a prominent white player speaks out against racism.
“A lot of the time people who are racist may take more notice when somebody in a prominent position – a current or former player who is white, not black – stands there and says, ‘This is a disgrace’,” Ferdinand said.
“You have to think to yourself, ‘Would someone who is racist take advice from a black man or someone of colour?’ Whereas if someone who they look up to, who is from a similar background to them, starts saying, ‘I’m appalled by this behaviour, it’s disgusting, I don’t want my kids to hear it’ – that’s another way this needs to be attacked as well.
“It’s almost as though they [players] are treading on eggshells – ‘I can’t get involved in this’. That has to change. I know enough people and players in those positions past and present who don’t agree with it but who don’t speak out and I think that’s maybe something that needs to be looked at.
“If someone goes on the pitch and puts his club under scrutiny, with the chance of having points deducted, there will be no one in that stadium cheering him. Incidents of racism should take the same course but the volume isn’t as turned up when it’s racism.”
The BT Sport and Premier League Disability programme funds 32 Premier League and EFL clubs to create more opportunities for disabled people across England and Wales. Visit btsport.com/inspiring
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