A recent ‘wave’ of racist abuse against players highlights a persisting culture of discrimination.
In 2011, then-head of FIFA Sepp Blatter controversially claimed that “there is no racism” in football, arguing that football has “moved on” from the relentless and often violent racism of the 1970s and 1980s. However, racist chants and taunts from the stands — which include racial slurs, monkey noises, and throwing bananas at black players — persist in 2011, and statistics suggest that they may even be getting worse.
Home Office statistics show that one in ten matches in England and Wales in the 2019-20 season involved an incident of hate crime, the majority of which were related to race. Similarly, anti-racism organisation Kick It Out reported a 42% increase in reports of abuse from the previous season, despite a number of matches being postponed or cancelled because of the pandemic. This abuse also continues off the pitch. Covid-19 measures banning live crowds have contributed to a recent wave of racist abuse on social media, an issue recently vocalised in a viral tweet by Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford. The scale of online abuse against black players is alarming — a study commissioned by the Professional Footballers’ Association found that 43% of surveyed Premier League players received racist abuse or threats via Twitter between the 17th of June and the 26th of July.
Racism in football is a long-running problem, the causes of which have been debated for decades. However, a central issue with this trend is the way in which it is often downplayed. Racist insults and language are often normalised, tolerated as part and parcel of the banter and chants that characterise any football match. Along with other forms of hateful language such as homophobia and sexism, racism has become somewhat embedded in football fan culture, even when hecklers claim that they don’t mean it “in that way”. As one fan stated in a 2016 study, factors like race and sexuality are an easy target for fans who are angry at a player’s actions on the pitch or the outcome of a match, which are often the contexts in which racist abuse occur.
On the more extreme end of the scale is the sport’s relationship with far-right groups, who see football — which has a large number of white and working-class fans — as a way to recruit new members. Groups like the BNP, National Front and the EDL have historically tried to infiltrate football, with strong ties to football hooliganism. A more recent example is the anti-extremism group the Football Lads Alliance (FLA). The FLA’s politics have swerved sharply to the right over time, with an increased focus on anti-Islam rhetoric, to the extent that the Premier League have warned football clubs about their presence and their flags have been banned from many stadiums. Football fans who are also affiliated with the far-right are obviously in the minority. However, the enduring relationship between the two, however small, highlights the importance of anti-racism efforts that specifically target football, campaigning and educating to show that racism has no place in the sport.
So, what is currently being done? Due to this ‘wave’ of hate crime, aided by a greater focus on racism in sports — with a number of English teams ‘taking the knee’ in solidarity with Black Lives Matter — there has been an encouraging increase in anti-racism initiatives. The first ‘football hate crime officer’ has recently been appointed as part of the police force, working with football clubs and community groups to tackle racism on the pitch and on social media. Kick It Out have also recently partnered with key football authorities and organisations, along with the Home Office and Criminal Prosecution Service, as well as Facebook and Twitter, to launch the #TakeAStand campaign, focusing on education and reporting to tackle football racism on social media.
Of course, the problem of racism in football runs deeper than the behaviour of fans, and this has an impact on efforts to tackle it. People from BAME backgrounds are seriously underrepresented in footballing authorities, including as managers and referees — in the 2019-20 season, there was not a single referee in the Premier League from a BAME background. Players have stressed the importance of BAME representation among coaches, managers and referees, as well as in top-level authorities in FIFA and the Football Association, for anti-racism efforts, arguing that authorities with lived experience and understanding of racial abuse are better suited to address it.
JAN Trust stands against racism and in solidarity with BAME communities and the Black Lives Matter movement. We have supported marginalised communities for over 30 years and continue to push for political action on BAME issues.