It isn’t easy knowing whether the people occupying football’s ivory towers have actually noted what Rhian Brewster has had to say in the past few days. Unless I have missed it, the executives at Uefa and Fifa have not uttered a word in response and, frankly, that is no surprise whatsoever. Anyone calling Uefa since 22 December would get a cheery answerphone message saying its offices are closed and the lights are out until 4 January. Fifa, meanwhile, is on its own extended Christmas break. “Hope you are not in a hurry,” one of its press aides told me.
It can wait if the president of either organisation is willing to be interviewed about a system that feels so inadequate it has been left to a boy of 17 to try to jolt the relevant people into action. Even better, perhaps, if Aleksander Ceferin, Gianni Infantino or any of their colleagues want to contact Brewster the old-fashioned way and hear for themselves why someone of his age has felt compelled to speak out.
Somehow, though, I doubt it and it is difficult to have too much faith bearing in mind what we already know about these organisations and the impression sometimes that the only colour they really care about is that of a £50 banknote.
Brewster did not sound overly optimistic either when he chronicled, in uncensored form, the seven different incidents, including five in the past seven months and one in the Under-17 World Cup final, when he says he has been racially abused or heard a team‑mate suffering the same.
He would like to think the voice of a 17-year-old might be heard and, though he is absolutely not alone, with his club, family and Kick it Out all behind him, let’s hope the Football Association is not merely playing to the gallery and intends to stick by its promise to “push for appropriate responses from the relevant authorities”.
Brewster is still at an age when, for most of us, the biggest worry in life is mastering the three-point turn. It is not fair to expect him to take on the authorities single-handedly, nor was that ever his intention, and this is the ideal time, surely, for the FA to start making amends, if possible, for the pig’s ear it made of the Eni Aluko affair.
Anything else would be a missed opportunity because, as Jürgen Klopp points out, it should be a wake-up call for the entire sport if it has reached the point where one of Liverpool’s academy boys – a child of the 21st century, no less, born in the year that Steven Gerrard made his England debut – is willing to take the lead, before he has made his professional debut, and without any real experience of the industry’s politics.
It is not an exact science, admittedly, but certainly in the era of social media it is rare to see an interview with any footballer, even one of the category-A superstars, go viral so quickly.
Going forward, I get the impression Brewster wants to be thought of as a prolific scorer of goals rather than someone who decided that, no, he wasn’t going to stay quiet any longer. For the time being, however, it has clearly struck a nerve that someone his age has had the force of personality to take a stand and say enough’s enough – and, for that alone, he deserves all the praise that is coming his way.
Is it too much to hope that Uefa, in particular, might recognise there are some questions to answer here? Brewster has done his bit now and it is no good Uefa pointing out there are 10‑game bans in place for any player found guilty of racial abuse if it is also clear the same organisation has no apparent desire to gather in the necessary evidence.
Liverpool’s complaint against the Sevilla player who allegedly called Brewster a “nigger” in a Uefa Youth League tie in September is a case in point. Sevilla denied the allegation and that, for Uefa, was that – case closed.
There were no follow-up interviews with Brewster, his team-mates or anyone else from Liverpool and nobody, as far as the club understands, went back to the match officials to investigate further. The case has been quietly filed away and nobody should be too surprised, when that is the recurring theme of this story, that Brewster has concluded it was little more than a box-ticking exercise. Or that he feels so worn down by the system his initial reaction after the latest incident, involving a Spartak Moscow player and more alleged use of the N-word, was that there was no point even submitting a complaint. Liverpool did so anyway, and Uefa has not even given them a date for the hearing.
It certainly isn’t easy having a great deal of faith in Uefa when its punishments for racist chanting and banners are so notoriously frail and a club could be fined more for turning up a few seconds late for kick-off than, say, if there was a swastika in the crowd.
Equally, it is too simplistic sometimes to heap all the blame on Uefa when the culpability starts with the relevant clubs and national federations, many of whom frequently give the impression these are matters that rank somewhere near the bottom of their priorities.
When I sat opposite Brewster, encountering a polite, resilient boy who would much rather be making headlines in happier circumstances, he was accompanied by Alex Inglethorpe, Liverpool’s academy director, and the older man cut to the heart of the matter. “It doesn’t seem that when you play in France, Belgium, Switzerland and various other countries there’s a problem. It just seems that some countries are further behind in their thinking. There are certain countries where you always know ‘this could be a tricky one’.”
Russia, inevitably, is one and, though it would be wrong to grade the different incidents, it did feel particularly dismal to hear about the occasion, in 2012, when Brewster was part of Chelsea’s junior system and subjected to monkey chants in an under-13 tournament hosted by the country that will stage the World Cup next summer. He was 12 at the time and how does a boy of that age prepare for the excruciating moment when it suddenly becomes clear that loud, visceral ooh-oohing is intended for him?
Five years on, it might not come as a surprise that when Brewster heard the same again, directed at his team-mate Bobby Adekanye, he was back in Russia, playing for Liverpool against Spartak Moscow in the Uefa Youth League. There is a pattern here. Another incident, he says, involved a Ukraine player in the European Under‑17 Championship and another, aged 15, in a club tournament in the Czech Republic.
Yet it is incorrect to see this merely as a problem for eastern Europe. Two of the incidents Brewster cited involved Spanish players. There are plenty of other countries where it is still very much a recurring theme and it would be arrogant in the extreme to think English football is in any place to lecture when we have just had the Raheem Sterling case, with a Manchester United supporter starting a four-month prison sentence, and the FA executives who ended up in front of a parliamentary hearing because of the Aluko farce are all, ludicrously, still in their jobs.
Kick It Out received more reports of abuse in 2016-17 than any previous season in which data has been collected. The numbers are on the up and it is hardly surprising when, to quote Herman Ouseley, the organisation’s chairman, we live in a time when there are “wider elements of society driving hate”. It all feels, to put it bluntly, pretty bleak and no coincidence at all.
Yet, strangely, there was something rather uplifting about being in the presence of one of the rising young stars of English football, switching on a tape and hearing from a player who did not want to talk in evasive cliches and felt that, in his own small way, he might be able to make a difference.
In the past few days there have been all sorts of suggestions that Brewster should take a knee the next time he is required to stand behind one of Uefa’s banners or that, if an opponent racially abuses him again, he and his team‑mates would be entitled to walk off in protest. That is for them to decide whereas, for now, all that can be said for certain is that Brewster has shown what can be achieved with dignity, restraint and intelligence and I just hope, should he ever be targeted again, that all that pent-up anger and hurt is containable.
We had this conversation with Inglethorpe and, when Brewster talked about how close he came to seeking physical retribution after the latest occasion, involving the Spartak Moscow player, there was something very impressive about the way Liverpool’s academy director spoke to him from a position of having more life experience. “Two wrongs won’t make a right,” Inglethorpe told him. “It weakens your case. Emotions are high, testosterone is high, but keep calm.
“It’s really hard to trust in a process when you have no faith in it,” he added. “But you’ve got to keep your cool because your voice loses something otherwise and it diminishes your cause. I trust you.”
It was sound advice and it was clear Brewster has a strong network around him, going all the way to the top of the club bearing in mind the supportive calls he has received from Mike Gordon, the co-owner. Liverpool, very understandably, are proud of what their player has done. “It makes you search within yourself a bit,” Inglethorpe told me. “If I was 17 and faced with the same dilemma I would love to think I had the same kind of courage and fortitude. I’m not sure I would have done but I would love to think so because it’s incredibly brave and, more importantly, it’s the right thing. It seems to me like he’s trying to create some change. And to do that, at 17, it’s tough.”