Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy and football’s inconvenient truths

Match day is a completely different experience to what it was two years ago. 

Back in those halcyon days of commercialism, football signalled an escape from the real world and its dreary concerns. For ninety minutes it was not only permissible but encouraged to gag “politics” and lock it up in a dark room.

And then 2020 happened. The sport had its long-overdue epiphany: it realised that it was impossible to separate itself from society and its ills. Not when it is a subsuming cultural phenomenon.

Today every kick-off in most major leagues is preceded by everyone taking a knee against racism. Half-time promos now include glitzy montages urging tolerance and love. Young players are praised for taking up a cause rather than chastised against it.

It is against this backdrop that Benjamin Mendy has arrived with a very inconvenient truth. Last Thursday, Manchester City’s French defender was charged with four counts of rape and one count of sexual assault between October 2020 and August this year. He was remanded into custody and appeared in court on Friday. We now also know that he had been arrested in November.

His club has taken the only reasonable option and suspended him. But it is the club’s actions before the accusations became public that might invite difficult questions as the case unfolds.

According to The Athletic, City inevitably knew about Mendy’s prior arrests and evidently was aware of the allegations. While we are not yet privy to exactly what transpired at the Etihad – and thus should tread carefully with our speculation – somewhere in this process it must be demanded that the club explain its action.

Not until Mendy was literally barred from playing did it take the moot decision of suspending him. In the intervening time he has been treated just as any other player in the squad. He started the season opener against Tottenham Hotspur and was on the bench on the Saturday before the revelation.

What precisely did City know? What processes did it implement when it learned it had an accused sexual offender on its books? These are questions that entities such as the Premier League must vigorously interrogate if it is serious about its claim of being a positive change agent.

In a disturbing coincidence, there is a precedent already from this season to draw on. A senior Everton player was suspended after the club became aware of child sex offence allegations against him. In his case he cannot be named in the British press (although he has been in Iceland) because the investigation is still ongoing — yet decisive action was still taken.

But most major clubs prefer to adopt a wait-and-see approach – taking the legal cop-out of allowing authorities to complete their processes.

It is a difficult question: at what point does the innocent-until-proven-guilty mantra become untenable? While due process is of course essential, arguably no other sector of society is so serenely comfortable with pushing aside its dirty laundry. 

At the same time as Mendy found himself on all the British front pages, Cristiano Ronaldo’s face was plastered across the back. The Portuguese player has returned to Manchester United to write a storybook ending to his legendary career.

In almost none of those articles would it be mentioned that he is still embroiled in legal battles with his rape accuser. Thanks to a 2018 report by renowned German publication Der Spiegel, we know that he paid $375 000 of hush money in 2010. The woman in question is now suing him based on claims she was pressured into the agreement and is awaiting the decision of a Nevada judge as to whether the case can proceed.

Until there is more to go on, few would dare to question Ronaldo too forcefully about it. This is, after all, a man who tanked Coca-Cola’s value by $4-billion by uttering a single word: “Agua” (water).

Football rarely lets anything interrupt a good story; not least when it can’t see beyond its own nose. United and its returning star have revelled in the “coming home” loyalty narrative … and would kindly ask you to forget he was set to sign to the riches of hated rivals City until it baulked at his asking price.

It is not only sexual offence that remains an icky subject.

In this same transfer window, Lionel Messi said goodbye to Barcelona and arrived in Paris Saint-Germain. It was a coup not just for the club but its owners – Qatar. 

Procuring the services of the iconic Argentinian is an exceptional act of sportswashing that timely arrives just before the 2022 World Cup. As the last year has demonstrated, the ethical implications of hosting an event in a country notorious for its mistreatment of labourers is one issue on which both fans and players are showing a willingness to speak out.

In fact, according to the data, most fans are against the quadrennial showcase taking place in the Gulf nation and are willing to boycott if necessary.

At least, so says research published earlier this year by RunRepeat – the people who brought us the enlightening study into racial biases in the commentary booth in June last year. The research firm asked fans across the world whether their nations should boycott the event next year. Just more than 70% said yes. Asked whether it should be moved entirely, 69.10% of respondents were in agreement.

A total of 66.7% agreed that the treatment of migrant workers was worthy of a boycott while 62.56% said the same about “women and LGBTQI rights”.

The study followed a stream of high-profile protest action against the Gulf state by a number of national teams. While the world has long heard murmurs of Qatar’s mistreatment of its labour force, the kindling truly caught alight when The Guardian published a report earlier this year alleging that 6 750 south Asian migrants have died since the country was awarded hosting rights in 2010. 

In this unprecedented era, in which football is reconciling its role in both causing and solving societal ills, the idea that one-purpose sports arenas are being built with blood is proving unpalatable. 

Where does that leave us? It’s almost impossible to know.

To begin with, it’s hard to predict if any movement could gain the clout needed to move the needle on the issue. The RunRepeat study, while informative, is limited in having only a little more than 4 000 respondents. 

“I hope to repeat the survey closer to the time and see if it changes as the World Cup becomes real,” head researcher Danny McLoughlin told the Mail & Guardian when asked if broader fan bases might feel the same way. “I feel it’s very abstract at the moment. I’ve heard a lot of people say they won’t even watch it. However, as the tournament comes closer I think it will end up being too difficult for people to give it up.”

Indeed activism is all well and good until a difficult decision has to be made, such as missing the greatest show on Earth or suspending a valuable asset mixed up in worrisome allegations. Also, simply, the despots tend to come out on top in these sorts of situations.

Just ask Mesut Özil. The Arsenal midfielder was ostracised after he spoke out against the plight of Uyghur Muslims in China. While the club would never admit to that causation of events, it’s a tough one to refute – especially when it did actively distance itself from the remarks.

“In America, we saw George Floyd killed and the world spoke up to say Black Lives Matter, and that is correct,” Özil would later say. “We are all equal and it’s a good thing that people fight against injustice.

“But I wish people would have done the same for the Muslims because Arsenal have many Muslim players and fans as well, and it is important for the world to say that Muslim Lives Matter.”

No reasonable person would claim the current antiracism efforts across the global game are a bad thing. What was once a plague spoken about in hushed tones under the bleachers is now openly condemned on the biggest stages. But we should never forget that football had to be dragged by public opinion into that position. On other issues, it still prefers to stick its head into the sand.

Keep the powerful accountable

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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