Meera Syal says racist abuse kept her away from football for decades

Recalling the distressing incident during a Port Vale vs. West Ham game in 1991, Syal said how the encounter tarnished what should have been an enjoyable outing

Meera Syal (Photo by Kate Green/Getty Images)

By: Pramod Thomas

BRITISH ASIAN actress and writer Meera Syal has shared her experience of steering clear of football matches for decades after encountering racist abuse during her first and only visit to a game over thirty years ago.

Syal, who shot to success with Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42, told The Times that she refrained from attending football matches since witnessing racist abuse at the stadium, which left her feeling ‘shame, fury, [and] isolation’,

Recalling the distressing incident during a Port Vale vs. West Ham game in 1991, Syal said how the encounter tarnished what should have been an enjoyable outing.

“It spoils what should have been a fun day out. It did make me remember the awful consistent group abuse that black footballers had to put up with during the Seventies, Eighties — and still sometimes now — and appreciate what courage it must have taken them to keep playing and keep their dignity. And yes, I do think it put me off wanting to attend another match,” she was quoted as saying.

The incident is documented in Namaste, Geezer, a memoir authored by Syal’s former husband, journalist Shekhar Bhatia, shedding light on their shared experience at the game and the failure of bystanders to condemn the offensive behaviour.

Bhatia and Syal observed a nearby fan directing racist insults at the visiting midfielder, George Parris, who was black.

The offender, amidst a crowd predominantly comprised of white men, faced no rebuke for his offensive remarks until Bhatia reported the incident to a police officer. Subsequently, the officer ensured their safety for the remainder of the match and warned the racist spectator of ejection should he continue his behaviour.

“When the racist comments began, it was a weirdly familiar feeling [and] brought back a lot of those emotions from childhood: being targeted, shame, fury, injustice, being very alone. We were, as I recall, the only people of colour in that section, so that also highlighted that feeling of isolation. But it made it much worse because we were effectively trapped in the stand. And also you become very aware of reactions of people around you — was anyone going to challenge the catcalling? Was anyone going to join in? It’s a strange kind of loyalty test, and sadly most people, as I found out, don’t want to get involved, at least not back then,” Syal told The Times about the incident.

Despite being married to Liverpool fan and actor Sanjeev Bhaskar, Syal has chosen not to accompany him to matches at Anfield, reflecting the enduring impact of her traumatic experience.

While Syal had previously voiced her opposition to racism within the entertainment industry, this is the first time she discussed her experience with racism in football.

The actress, however, noted that the culture surrounding the sport had shown signs of improvement since then. She observed that modern clubs have implemented anti-racist policies and that stadiums now appear more welcoming to female and family attendees.

“I believe the majority of football fans who love the game know there’s no room for racism in football,” she said.

She suggested that while clubs may enforce regulations, the effectiveness of policies is limited for certain individuals.

She stressed the role of genuine football fans in identifying and condemning the toxic minority responsible for tarnishing the sport’s reputation.