Unai Emery: Let’s ‘finish’ racism – as Gunners gear up for Arsenal For Everyone as Kick It Out hits 25 and Premier League push ‘No Room’ campaign
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Read Layth Yousif’s special feature on Arsenal For Everyone which coincides with Kick It Out’s 25th anniversary and the Premier League’s No Room For Racism campaign.
A day and 18 years after the untimely death of the legendary David ‘Rocky’ Rocastle, his immortal epithet – passed down the club for decades prior to him sharing it publicly – rings truer than ever: ‘Remember who you are, what you are, and who you represent.’
The Gunners have always tried to stay true to this ethos, not least through the club’s unyielding commitment to the causes of inclusivity and community work.
Those buzzwords are no mere soundbites at the North London giants.
Their ceaseless engagement with the North London community, through everything from empowering talented youngsters from troubled estates – a corner kick but a world away from the Emirates – to aiding anti-knife crime films, to helping provide a platform for amputees, to providing support for the Gay Gooners LGBT team, has shown the club is dedicated to diversity.
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So successful has the ‘Arsenal Amps’ team been over the last couple of season’s the side were crowned League Cup winners over the weekend.
The club’s foundation have been helping worthy projects near and far, from schools in the shadows of Highbury to empowering football projects for underprivileged youngsters everywhere from Uganda to Indonesia.
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While Hector Bellerin has used his platform as a high profile Premier League footballer with a social conscience to champion such progressive causes as veganism and educate on the dangers of climate change.
But there is another reason why Arsenal should be applauded – their commitment to fighting the insidious creep of racism in the second decade of the 21st century.
It may have been a mundane press conference at London Colney ahead of a routine Europa League match earlier in the season.
But no-one who was there would forget the way Ainsley Maitland-Niles conducted himself, and what he said, in a way that the much-loved and much-missed Rocastle – himself no stranger to being on the end of racist abuse – would have been proud.
Arsenal footballers are schooled from a young age to be confident. It is in the club’s DNA that scholars are taught to have respect for themselves and their peers, as well as the game itself.
Yet the talented 21-year-old from Goodmayes, a tough district of Redbridge in north east London, looked uncomfortable as he started speaking.
The topic he was asked about was his experience of racism.
The England U21 starlet – who has been associated with the club since he was six years old – bravely revealed he had faced the same racism Raheem Sterling suffered during the previous weekend’s match at Stamford Bridge when playing for Manchester City.
The England U21 star said: “It is disgusting. It happened to me before in youth football, similar to what happened with Raheem.
“I went out to take a throw in and there was racial abuse behind me.
“I was at Arsenal at the time, It was an away trip to Germany.”
Maitland-Niles said he was around 12 at the time of the incident, adding: “It is one way of them knocking me off my game and making me feel uncomfortable.
“It hurts to talk about it but it is so important to get rid of it from the game.”
Fast forward four months and the issue of how football should tackle racism was one of the main talking points of this weekend with a large number of Premier League bosses being quizzed on the issue.
It comes after England players, including Sterling, Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi and Tottenham’s Danny Rose, were targeted by racists during the Euro 2020 qualifier in Montenegro.
Moments after Sterling grabbed the Three Lions’ fifth in the 5-1 victory, he celebrated by cupping his hands to his ears, later telling the world it was a response to the racist abuse.
England boss Gareth Southgate, who looked ashamed after the incident, spoke eloquently following the match, openly pondering whether he would take his players off the pitch the next time such abuse occurred.
The incidents were reported to Uefa, which has charged Montenegro with racist behaviour, but the damage had already been done.
Arsenal have always fought racism on and off the pitch.
Whether it be by the club leading the vanguard of anti-racist campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s, or through fans chasing out the National Front who attempted to infiltrate Highbury in the dark days of the early 1980s – as well as by physically threatening pedlars of racist NF literature outside Arsenal tube station, the Gunners have a record to be proud of in fighting racism.
But would Arsenal boss Unai Emery mirror what Southgate suggested, and be the first Gunners boss to instruct his players to leave the field of play should such abuse occur, to, say, Maitland-Niles?
The Islington Gazette quizzed him on what his reaction would be if that scenario were to take place.
Emery replied: “I want respect for everybody. Everybody is the same. It is not part of my work [to take players off the pitch if they suffer racism].
“But all decisions [have to help contribute] to finishing racism.”
Monday’s Premier League game against Newcastle United has been designated as ‘Arsenal for Everyone’ – the 11th time the club have done so since they launched the campaign back in 2008.
The initiative celebrates the diversity of the ‘Arsenal family’ with community schemes held inside the stadium and across the club.
The highly-acclaimed event co-incides with KIck It Out’s 25th anniversary and the Premier League’s No Room For Racism campaign will also form part of the celebrations.
The scheme will be Emery’s first experience of an Arsenal For Everyone matchday, but the Basque is already aware of the campaign.
Emery told Arsenal.com: “It is an important part of a football club that anybody can come and enjoy watching a match – it does not matter about their differences or background.
“As the head coach I want to make it clear that everyone is welcome here. On Monday night we will celebrate the diversity of the Arsenal family, because that is what makes us so strong.
“I am proud to be a member of the Arsenal family,” the head coach said. “For me, it is a family that welcomes everybody and brings people together through respect and a love of football.”
The late David Rocastle would no doubt have agreed.
Arsenal For Everyone, indeed.
Follow Arsenal reporter Layth on Twitter @laythy29