BY BILLY TAYLOR
In the early 20th century, football in England was the chosen sport of the working class; white, male. Applying themselves to mundane occupations during the weekdays, fans could then escape the dull realism of a ‘nine to five’ life and unify as one to support their chosen team on weekends. This is a demographic that has remained constant, but in the modern era, there are now more cultures than ever present at matches both on the pitch and in the stands. However, although society has become more accepting of ethnic minorities, it can be said that racism is still prominent on a wider scale in the world of football, with many incidents in the last few years shedding light on a problem that is still overshadowing the beautiful game.
Football was a popular sport for many hundreds of years before it was standardised professionally in the 19th century, 37 years before the 1900’s. It was during the 20th century however, that racism can be said to be at its most prominent in society. This climax of racism can be summarised by the extreme racist propaganda which rationalised lynching those of African heritage, the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party (leading to the persecution of the Jews) and apartheid in South Africa. Although it would be absurd to state that both the rise of racism and professional football were somehow connected, it does give us an insight into the political and social circumstances of football’s early origins and how it discriminated against those who were not part of the initial demographic: those who were not white, working class males. This is the common idea of your stereotypical football fan and it is an idea that has remained until this day. In a recent survey I conducted, 74% of people said that they felt that the demographic of football fans hadn’t changed in the last 50-80 years, with 95% saying that the main demographic was male, 90% saying that they were of working class and 79% agreed that the main demographic is white. 0% of people surveyed said that football’s main demographic included females or ethnic minorities. It appears that since association football started in England, it has always appealed to the same niche group of people who had prejudice attitudes that were common in the 20th century.
With a majority of the football fans in England having the same ethnic and social background, this trend was reflected in the footballers as well. There were very few players of ethnic minorities in the English football league when the sport was undergoing a rise in popularity during the early to mid-1900’s. Racism was still conspicuous in sport at this moment in time as shown by baseball in the United States. Although there were a considerable amount of African American athletes playing baseball, they were not taken seriously by the white audience and had to present themselves differently in order to fit to the stereotype – joking around and acting in childlike ways, showing that the audience had a complete lack of respect for professionals belonging to a different ethnic group. Across the Atlantic Ocean in football, racism was starting to creep into the beautiful game, with one of the biggest examples in the 1950s being the treatment of the talented South African and Coventry player Steve ‘Kalamazoo’ Mokone. Although the youngster proved to be an ‘overnight sensation’ at the football club, with one journalist claiming that he “hadn’t seen such clamour in Coventry since the end of World War Two”, Coventry’s then-manager took a very different stance to the player, saying “We brought you over here and you’re not satisfied. That’s the trouble with you people”. Mokone promptly left the team after this quote was made due to being ‘disillusioned by his treatment’. Despite this being a fairly high profile case followed by many more throughout the 20th century, the first football club to be charged by the Football Association for the racist behaviour of either fans or management was Millwall in 2004, nearly 50 years after Mokone’s treatment by Coventry. Although society had advanced in terms of racial equality, the governing football bodies appeared to not take racial abuse seriously until very recently, making it seem like racism is more commonly accepted in football than outside of football.
In response to the issue of racism in football, pressure groups have been set up with the focus of changing archaic attitudes and encouraging more inclusiveness both on the pitch and in the stands. One of the main campaigns that is associated with professional and non-league English football is KickItOut (formerly Kick Racism Out of Football, who changed names in order to try and tackle inequality on a wider scale within the game). The group run a number of initiatives including the ‘Fans for Diversity’ campaign. “The campaign involves getting a more diverse background of people in the stadium to watch matches.” says Tom Taylor, the Media and Communications Assistant for KickItOut. “We know there is a massive fanbase out there who want to go to games but they are afraid because of the old stereotypes which are pretty much diminished”.
Despite this, there have been various incidents the last few years alone that have demonstrated why fans from minority backgrounds would avoid going to a stadium to see a live football match. The Chelsea fans who stopped a black man from getting on a train in Paris, the West Ham United fans who hissed at Tottenham supporters in reference to the gas chambers in Auschwitz and the thousands of racist tweets posted each day towards football players from different countries/racial backgrounds from the fans themselves. These incidents can be uncontrollable and hard to tackle, especially when they are away from a football match.
58% of football fans in the survey said that not enough was being done, from groups such as KickItOut, to combat racism in football and professionals from the game have also had their doubts about the work of KickItOut and its effectiveness in tackling discrimination. High profile figures such as Rio Ferdinand, Anton Ferdinand and several other players from the QPR squad who were at the club during the John Terry ‘racism row’ in 2012, have refused to wear t-shirts endorsing the campaign. Rio Ferdinand had accused KickItOut of not supporting his brother Anton during the racism trial, saying that they “refused to come to the courtroom with us, so I wasn’t willing to go through the charade [of wearing a KickItOut t-shirt]”. Commenting on this particular incident, Hayley Bennet, the Educational Officer for KickItOut said “It’s not nice for us to be criticised as individuals but we’re well aware that we are not doing enough and are well aware of the restrictions and financial restraints that we have that we would love to overturn”. Although it is obvious that this particular organisation are aiming to eradicate forms of discrimination from the game, professionals are eager for them to do more, which they are unable to do due to their financial restrictions. A sense of “real progress” could therefore only be achieved with the overwhelming support of the governing bodies of English football, who would need to “become less defensive about the shortcomings highlighted by organizations like Kick It Out” and have the confidence to work directly with them. With players and campaigns not displaying a unified front when it comes to tackling racism, it could be seen as football taking a step backward rather than forward.
On a much darker note, it could also be seen that racism is woven into the fabric of professional football itself due to the chauvinistic attitudes and hooligan culture that is exacerbated by the nature of the game. Chauvinism, in a political context, is defined as the ‘excessive or prejudice support for one’s own group’, something that a majority of football team supporters (not necessarily hooligans, this can relate to just your ordinary fans) all have the capability of showing. Football, unlike other sports, is constantly in the media spotlight and the concept of losing holds with it a stark financial insecurity. For example: if a team is relegated from the Premier League, they are set to lose £21million in television deals and £4million in sponsorship. Even the difference of finishing in a slightly lower position in the table can mean that a club loses out on millions of pounds. There is a literal price to pay for losing, which can result in players being sold, ticket prices rising and general cuts being made around a football team, something that fans desperately do not want to see happen. Every supporter is clearly dedicated to their football team if they choose to pay £30-80 to watch a match, a team that they want to succeed against all the odds and humiliate the opposition, and this in turn creates a culture of hooliganism – disruptive or violent behaviour – which is encouraged by the competitiveness of football and the desire to win. In Croatia in particular, hooliganism is a serious problem, where fans refer to other fans as ‘gypsies’ (used as a racially offensive term in context), where threatening, racist graffiti can be found targeting opposing clubs and where all of this is overlooked by the media companies as if ‘nothing is happening’. Although this is a much bigger problem in eastern Europe due the racist ideologies of some ‘ultra groups’, the UK does have its fair share of football ‘firms’ as well which have links to the National Front. There are many groups of working class men and youngsters who are involved in football violence and ‘have the sorts of life-experiences which make them susceptible to the ideologies of the fascist right’. However, those who are involved in racism at football matches might not necessarily be racist in regular working life, instead using the atmosphere of a football match in order to let the occasion get the better of their morals. When asked if they believed that the use of racist chants/insults in football matches were due to the racist mentality or used to simply distract or attack the opposition, 22% of the survey said racist mentality, 39% said racism was used as a distraction and 28% said it was a mixture of both, with the remaining 11% having different reasons. If racist references in the football stands are just used to ‘wind other people up’. It seems that racism will always be used – and often embraced – in football as an outlet of aggression towards their opponents regardless of attitudes towards racism outside the football ground.
Despite the talk about shortcomings of pressure groups, the highlighting and condemning of racism within football is on the rise – a correlation that is matched with the amount of foreign exports coming into the English football and subsequently the amount of cultures and races now co-existing on and off the pitch. It is not unusual to see a team in the Premier League field a starting eleven of 100% foreign players, so could this mean that xenophobic attitudes in football are on the decrease? When asked if he thinks English football has overcome xenophobia, Tom Taylor said “No I don’t think so. Judging by the research we posted last week looking at social media, we’ve realised that there is a lot of xenophobia that might have shifted from the stadium to social media. Xenophobia does still need to be tackled but the amount of foreign players in the Premier League has reduced its effect”. The Premier League now has the second highest percentage of foreign players playing domestically in Europe with 60.4%. However, the amount of overseas footballers plying their trade in England has often been criticised as the reason for the England National Team’s lack of recent success, and FA chairman Greg Dyke is taking steps to try and counter this by announcing plans to reduce the amount of ‘non-home grown’ players in the next few years. Although this is justified by the intention to ‘improve opportunities for home grown players’ (an overwhelming majority of which are English), it means that non-home grown players (an overwhelming majority of which are foreign) are being denied work as footballers in the UK. Very few other jobs in ordinary life would deny foreigners the right to work for not being ‘home-grown’ and instead employ less-skilled, English workers. It would surely be classed as racism should this rule exist in any other realm of work, but is justified in football due to its competitive, patriotic nature (eg: wanting the national team to succeed).
It is clear to see that football, a sport which is looked up to by fans and youngsters, has not assisted society in the attempt to eliminate racism. The harsh treatment of players justified by chauvinism, the lack of agreement on the ways to combat racism in the football, the bombardment of racist abuse (not necessarily from racist individuals but racism is used as a tactic to rile certain individuals) that can occur both on and off the pitch and the inherently racist ideologies of your stereotypical football fan are all reasons why football can be seen as being uncooperative in the fight against discrimination. Speaking on whether there is likely to ever be an end to racism in football, Tom Taylor said “I think in some aspects it’s not possible in the regard that sometimes you have such a massive crowd chanting something of a racist or discriminatory nature. It’s harder to police 20,000 people than it is to police one person”. This was echoed by Hayley Bennett who said “People think that because they’re in a collective of 20,000 people chanting a racist song then its okay or when they’re on social media and there is anonymity they can get away with it. In the private sphere abuse is still taking place, but in public it is found to be unacceptable”. From what both Tom and Hayley said throughout their interviews, racism used by people in public, such as managers and players in interviews, is largely on the decrease, but when it comes to large groups who are intent on causing unrest to the opposition from behind the façade of a consensus, then racism would be hard to eradicate unless individuals were named, shamed and educated. The hostile atmosphere of a football stadium can bring out the worst in some people, and if something racist is said then it can often be disregarded as ‘in the heat of the moment’ whilst behind a computer screen, people are able to post whatever they want without having to deal with the consequences. Football is on the right track of reflecting society’s attitudes towards racial acceptance by handing out fines and bans as deterrents, but these punishments are clearly not harsh enough if racism is continuing. The dominant working class, white male demographic of football will need to integrate with many other demographics, including female and ethnic minority, so that everyone can establish what is morally sound to chant and say whilst in a crowd, on the pitch or generally discussing football. Alas, this hasn’t happened yet and is unlikely to happen any time soon without proper intervention from football’s governing bodies, who could be seen as facilitating the problem rather than helping it, as shown by the lack of racism-based charges before 2004 and the home grown player rule.