Racism in Football

The effects of 2020 are going to leave some long-term marks on football, and the football industry is going to have to accommodate the sport to the changes in the world. A global pandemic, unpredictable four-month break, financial crisis, and other problems shook up the football world and led to some clubs falling from their grace, and in some instances even led clubs into bankruptcy and dissolving their clubs. One of the controversial topics that affected the football industry is racism, which is one of the biggest social problems in society. 2020 has been marked by various events battling racism in today’s world, such as George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests in the USA and all over the world. The protests sparked a discussion regarding racism, so the football world accepted the idea of taking a knee before the games as a way of recognizing the Black Lives Matter movement. The idea was met with a generally positive support, although some people didn’t support it. 

The Den stadium incident

This became apparent on 05 December 2020. A small number of supporters were allowed back into stadiums in the UK for the first time since March 2020, following the completion of a month-long lockdown in England to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. Before a Championship match between Millwall and Derby County, players of both teams took a knee to show support for the BLM movement. The action was met with booing from the Millwall fans, which sparked a controversy at the Den stadium. Former England captain and current Derby County manager Wayne Rooney said afterward it was “disappointing and upsetting” to hear the booing from supporters and urged football fans to not “tolerate or accept” the actions of “mindless” fans who take part in discriminatory behavior. 

PSG – Basaksehir incident

Only three days later, another incident shook the football world. A Champions League match between Paris Saint-Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir was suspended after the fourth official allegedly used a racist term towards Istanbul assistant coach, Pierre Webó. The incident occurred 14 minutes into the game and Istanbul players left the pitch in protest with PSG players following. A day later there were reports that the Basaksehir staff used racial slurs towards the Romanian referees, but all the details will be found out after an ongoing investigation.  In the end, UEFA postponed the game to the following evening with a new set of officials in place and both squads making a powerful anti-racism gesture during the Champions League anthem. All 22 players and the new set of referees took a knee around the centre-circle and wore shirts with anti-racism slogans.

Pierre Webó confronting referee Ovidiu Hategan (credit: Reuters)

England – Bulgaria

Unfortunately, these are two of the many instances of racism in football. The full list of incidents could go on forever. One of the more famous incidents in recent times was a European qualifiers match between England and Bulgaria in September 2019. The match, which resulted in a 6–0 England victory, was marked by racist chants and salutes from Bulgarian fans and was halted twice as a result. England player Jordan Henderson said the players wanted to make the Bulgarian fans “suffer” for their racist abuse with a big defeat. Bulgarian national team manager Krasimir Balakov responded by saying racism was more of a problem in England than Bulgaria. Balakov claimed not to have heard any racist chanting, while goalkeeper Plamen Iliev defended the fans, saying they had been well behaved. The next day UEFA, the governing body of European football, announced that the Bulgarian Football Association would be fined 75,000 euros and forced to play two matches behind closed doors, which was met with negative reactions from the English fans as the punishment was, in their opinion, too mild.

Bulgarian fans appear to make Nazi salutes during the match (credit: Sky News)

Italian racism

In April 2019, during an Italian Championship match between Juventus and Cagliari, Juventus forward Moise Kean was subject to racist chants by Cagliari fans. Juventus teammate Leonardo Bonucci was heavily criticized after stating that Kean was partly to blame for his celebration which caused further jeers. Only 5 months later, in August 2019, Inter Milan forward Romelu Lukaku was again racially abused by Cagliari fans. After the incident he said that the sport was “going backward” on racism. An Inter fan group called Curva Nord later said that the monkey chants from opposition fans were a sign of respect towards Lukaku.

Juventus defender Jose Cancelo comforting striker Moise Kean after the incident (credit: The New York Times)

Social media abuse

The abuse doesn’t stop there. As the fans were forbidden from attending the football matches due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the racism abuse continued online through social media. For example, In January 2021, Manchester United players Axel Tuanzebe and Antony Martial were abused online following a defeat in a game. A day later Romaine Sawyers of West Bromwich Albion received racist abuse following a match, as did Reece James of Chelsea. On 30 January 2021, a 49-year old man from Kingswinford was arrested for racially abusing Sawyers. The same day, Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford received racist abuse on social media following a draw in a match.  In February 2021, Alex Jankewitz of Southampton suffered racist abuse on social media after the midfielder got sent off early in a game. Following a draw in February, Tuanzebe again received racist abuse on social media after conceding a free-kick late in the game, which resulted in a last minute goal for the visitors.

Combating racism

FIFA and UEFA had an apparent problem in their sport, so they started trying to challenge and solve it. The first initiative to battle racism in football was the creation of the FARE network. Football Against Racism in Europe network is a network set up to counter discrimination in European football. One successful anti-racist campaign FARE has developed is the Action Week against Racism and Discrimination, which takes place annually in October under slogans such as “Show Racism the Red Card”. All 32 teams of the UEFA Champions League participated in the “Unite Against Racism” campaign, reaching more than 600,000 fans directly at the matches and millions more via live broadcast on television. 

“Say no to racism” campaign at the Confederations Cup in Russia in 2017. (credit: Getty Images)

Another campaign was organized in 1993 called “Kick It Out”. It was established as a campaign with the brand name ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’ in 1993 and as an organization in 1997. Within the football, educational and cultural sectors, the organization aims to challenge discrimination, foster inclusive activities, and advocate towards social change. The Premier League in the United Kingdom is running their own campaign “No Room for Racism” with the slogan “There Is No Room For Racism. Anywhere.”. Through No Room For Racism, the Premier League and its clubs work with fans, the FA, Kick It Out and the police to tackle racism on and off the pitch, promoting equality, diversity, and inclusion across all areas of football.

Engaging with different perspectives and embracing them can contribute to driving a similar change and creativity in organizations and wider society. By joining forces with social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #TakeAKnee, it appears anti-racism is moving to the center stage. While race equality initiatives have helped, recent incidents show there is still a long way to go.

Written by Marko Daraboš

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