Editorial: Football’s authorities must start at the top to root out racism

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Racist chanting across Europe continues to be met with feeble punishment, while glacial progress has been made at home on increasing BAME representation in boardrooms and dugouts

20 May ~ “I’ve got five or six more years left in football, and I just can’t wait to see the back of it.” So said Danny Rose after being racially abused, along with team-mate Raheem Sterling, during England’s Euro 2020 qualifier in Montenegro in March. Last month, UEFA ordered Montenegro to play their next qualifying game behind closed doors and fined them €20,000 (£17,000). This was the latest in a long series of feeble punishments imposed for racist chanting among crowds at international and club matches. For a variety of reasons, the football authorities around Europe approach a fundamental problem as though it’s just another form of rule transgression.

One of the many examples of distorted priorities in this respect was seen after a Champions League fixture in Porto seven years ago. Then, Manchester City were charged £10,000 more for being one minute late back on the pitch than the home side were for their fans’ abuse of Yaya Touré and Mario Balotelli. The topic has even been played down at UEFA’s own anti-racism conferences, most notoriously in Barcelona in 2006 when the event’s host, Spanish FA head Ángel María Villar, summed up two days of discussions by saying that players should not be punished for racist comments made during matches, suggesting “Things that take place on the pitch should be left there.” That came not long after probably the lowest ever point in Anglo-Spanish football relations, when sections of the crowd at the Bernabéu booed Shaun Wright-Phillips and Ashley Cole throughout a Spain v England match. This followed on from British press criticism of Spanish coach Luis Aragonés, who had been overheard at a squad training session making racist remarks about Thierry Henry. Aragonés responded with a rant about Britain’s imperial history and there were echoes of his peevish whataboutery after the game in March when Montenegrin officials, who claimed not to have heard the abuse of Sterling and Rose, brought up English fans’ bad reputation abroad.

That there has been an increase in reported cases of racist chanting at matches here in recent times – Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly was targeted in a Europa League tie at the Emirates last month – does not of course mean that English administrators should be wary of drawing attention to it elsewhere. But racist attitudes also linger here among people in positions of authority, as was shown in two recent cases in Yorkshire. The long-standing chairman of the Sheffield & Hallamshire County FA resigned from his job after sharing Islamophobic comments online while an official at the same FA was suspended for using racist language in a local league meeting.

Opinion is divided over the most effective ways for dealing with abuse at stadiums. Sterling is among those who feels that players should not walk off in protest as it would only embolden the abusers, and argues that teams with racist fans should face points deductions instead. Players’ exasperation with the action taken against racism was highlighted on April 19 when many boycotted social media for a day. The following week several high-profile players endorsed a manifesto published in the Times that called for greater representation of people from BAME backgrounds at all levels of football. In response the FA announced that it aimed to have at least 16 per cent BAME employees in the next two years (nudged up from the current 13 per cent); white men currently make up around 90 per cent of the 122-member FA Council.

Since the announcement of the Montenegro fine, Rose made an important clarification to his comments about looking forward to leaving football. In an interview with Sky, he explained that he was also referring to the lack of opportunities presented to black managers in England, something that discouraged him from taking coaching badges (“You are not going to get a chance, so it’s a waste of time”). There are currently three British-born black managers among the 92 League clubs. It’s now eight years since the PFA and the League Managers Association supported the introduction here of the NFL’s “Rooney rule” which requires that at least one black candidate is interviewed for every coaching job in the league. That no further progress has been made on this idea suggests a resistance to it in club boardrooms. Audible prejudice can be directly confronted, other forms are more insidious.

This article first appeared in WSC 387, June 2019. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here