Over the last seven days Kiko Casilla has been banned from playing for Leeds United for using racist language towards Jonathan Leko, who was playing at the time for Charlton; he was supported by the club and the fans before the game at Hull City.
Then it was revealed in the FA tribunal’s written reasons that Casilla had used the worst insult available towards Leko — ‘You fucking n—-r’ — and defended himself on the flimsiest basis, and the club’s credibility was called into question by the tribunal due to the evidence given by team manager Matt Grice, who the panel believed was ‘not seeking to assist us to ascertain the truth of what had happened’ by giving evidence they described at one point as ‘frankly incredible’.
As weeks go, it has been bad for Leeds United. The written reasons were published on Tuesday evening, and by the end of Wednesday a lot of Leeds supporters were expressing their anxious wish to ‘move on’. That’s understandable, because anyone would want to put such an unpleasant situation, in which we as fans are largely observers and not participants, and certainly not protagonists — this is on Casilla — behind them.
But I’d offer anyone who thinks we should move on a deal: we can, as long as the same is asked of anybody singing or chanting in support of Kiko Casilla during the match against Elland Road on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, even if we want to move on, the ripple effect from this week is ahead of us yet.
The urge to move on is also motivated by not wanting anything to disrupt Leeds United’s season and chances of promotion, another natural way for football fans to feel. Football has that distorting effect on common sense, and it’s one of its thrills, like drink or drugs impacting the senses. But it’s good sometimes to question a system of values that places the success of a team playing a game above racism, to ask ourselves what it is about football that makes us want to put something so relatively trivial before so much that isn’t. Football can still be fun even while attempting to bring some moral clarity to it, the work of Marcelo Bielsa being one example.
It is actually possible to move on reasonably quickly from the Casilla case if we follow Marcelo Bielsa’s advice. “When a club is part of a competition,” he said this week, the only senior representative of Leeds to have commented since the written reasons were published, “the club knows that the authorities have the right to judge like they did in this situation.” He said that to clarify his point: “The people who have to judge Kiko have already done it … What we do is accept the authorities’ decisions.”
A lot of people have refused to do that this week. The outcome of the case on Casilla is, in effect, relatively minor. The main concern was for his reputation, after being accused and found to have said something extremely awful. But the written statements submitted to the tribunal in support of Casilla’s good character show there is no shortage of people who will be willing to work and socialise with him in the future; his reputation has been damaged, but not ruined beyond repair. Which is fortunate for him, in the circumstances. He’s also fortunate that he has not lost his £30,000 a week job, as someone might in another industry, and has enough references to overcome any difficulties finding work in the future.
Casilla’s punishment is that he won’t be allowed to play in eight games of football, and it’s worth remembering, that is what the tribunal set out to decide about. The level of post-finding counter-investigation their written reasons have been subject to online, based on a fraction of the evidence that was considered during the two-day tribunal itself, has demanded a level of proof of Casilla’s wrongdoing equivalent to a criminal court case of the most serious kind. This phrase has often been used: ‘Leko’s case would never stand up in court.’ Well, neither would Casilla’s defence of it, but that’s not the point: this was not a criminal court, and nobody was thinking about putting Casilla in jail. The question was, should he miss some football games in our competition? And the evidence supported a confident, yes. That’s a decision I think anyone reading the 62-page summary explanation of reasons would find it reasonable to accept, as Bielsa says we should. That would be the first step of moving on.
Bielsa’s other important comments were about his continuing support for Casilla, and how he didn’t want to express that support in a way that might imply anything other than condemnation of racism.
“A person that is sanctioned for racism,” he said, “we know that this is going to have an impact in his spirit, how he is. And of course any of us can be in a bad personal moment, for any reason. And we try to act in a human way.
“What we should avoid when we express ourselves, and for this reason I try to take care of the words I am using, because I don’t want people to interpret supporting Kiko at this moment as meaning that we are in favour of racists.
“For this reason I say again, any person, every person that suffers racist abuse deserves the support of all of us. But if any colleague of ours is suffering for whatever reason, we act in the human sense.”
This is something worth considering by anyone ready to sing Kiko Casilla’s name at Elland Road. It’s not a bad thing to want to support him. Both Casilla and Leko have made public statements expressing the difficulty of what they’ve been through during the last five months. That the process has brought Leko to the point where he’d advise other footballers not to follow the FA advice of reporting incidents of racism to referees, beginning the process he’s just been through, is a big reason why the implications of this case can’t be left behind quickly or easily: there are big questions for the FA, the PFA, anti-racism organisations and the three clubs involved to answer about why their mechanism should leave a player feeling that way. After the strain of the same process, I imagine it’s impossible that Casilla will ever use the same language ever again, but the way to arrive at that outcome should not be by grinding down everybody involved over several months.
It’s worth underlining, too, that despite one of the concerns expressed about using the ‘balance of probability’ to decide cases like these — that it opens the door to spurious allegations — the result has been the opposite, so that it’s now less likely that a player will report being abused, not more.
The mental health implications of the investigation have been repeatedly raised, and Lee Bowyer said on Thursday that he’d seen Leko becoming withdrawn after the incident. “You can see he wasn’t himself,” he said, “because he’s a bubbly lad, he’s a young lad, very confident, and he was a bit quiet for a while after. But then us as a group, we got him through that, and then he started to become himself again.”
From Kiko Casilla’s point of view, he appears to be a fundamentally decent person who has done an inexplicably awful thing outside his usual character, and been badly advised on how to deal with it — the defence he and Leeds United offered resulted in his ban being increased by two games. The tribunal’s written reasons deliberately begin by establishing that Casilla has no history of demonstrating racist attitudes, and that they were giving considerable weight to how improbable this made it that he would use the words he was accused of. But despite that, they found that he did use those words, and Casilla has to face the consequences of his actions.
It is not wrong, in those circumstances, for Leeds United to carry out their duty of care towards him; especially as they don’t appear to have been particularly successful at that so far. Due to the millions of pounds involved in top level sport, the ‘club’ part of football has been relegated below the plc, but it’s one of the few things football still has going for it — that competing teams are representatives of clubs, clubs that bring their memberships together in good times and bad. Marching on Together, in Leeds United’s case, and it’s telling how determined so many people are to ignore the club’s advice about preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, demanding the right to hug a stranger out of sheer joy anyway.
That’s behind some of the urge to give Casilla vocal support at Elland Road: he is part of our club, and is in what Bielsa describes as “a bad personal moment”. But Casilla’s membership of our club does not give him more or less importance than any fan in the stands at Elland Road, if you accept that we’re all in this together, united by metaphors about family and side before self. That means that if you want to support Casilla by writing him a private letter saying so, you should feel free to do so, care of Thorp Arch. But it also means, before singing or chanting in support of him, pausing to think with the same feeling of empathy about a BAME Leeds United supporter in the stands, and the impact on their mental health of hearing several thousand people around them, in football terms all on the same side, choosing to support a person whose language made divisions against someone like them.
To put it another way: I can’t imagine a black Leeds fan wanting to come to Elland Road if they feel like the players are allowed to call someone ‘you fucking n—-r’ and receive a round of applause afterwards. And I can’t imagine a Leeds fan wanting another Leeds fan to feel that way. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)