With the World Cup only six weeks away, and the Women’s World Cup scheduled for Summer 2023, recent footballing events shows just how much work there is for FIFA, and other governing bodies, to do to tackle racism in a practical manner.
In September, in Paris, Brazil’s forward Richarlison was racially abused when a banana was thrown at him as he celebrated his 19th-minute goal against Tunisia. In a later tweet, Richarlison reminded the world of FIFA’s halfhearted attempts to tackle racism in football. He then expressed his lack of faith in the institution’s zero tolerance stance against such dehumanizing behavior.
I find it mindblowing that people still throw banana skins at Black people, my people, could’ve been me, but I’m not surprised anymore.
In case you just read over that, without much of a reaction, let me tell you that that experience is fucked up and people need to change what causes it.
Another incident involving racial abuse in football was earlier in May, in Bulgaria, when an “organized group” of fans of CSKA Sofia abused four of their own Black players after losing a cup final to rivals Levski Sofia. Despite this abuse, all four players were then persuaded to play their next match after initially refusing to play. Amazingly, they managed a draw.
These events led to Ex-Premier League manager, Alan Pardew, to resign after just two months in charge, alongside his assistant Alex Dyer, who was the first Black man to hold a coaching role at the club.
How many times do we need to rely on Rio Ferdinand to call racism out on live TV? Shoutout to Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent too! And Alex Scott of course.
By taking an unusual, and radical, move to resign, Pardew has shown the world that it is possible to take a step further than merely just calling out racism. He disrupted the status quo by being actively anti-racist. He was no longer a bystander. Fair play!
In the racist society in which we live (yes you read that correctly) race is a critical experience and process by which many are disproportionately disadvantaged and excluded to favor the gains of others. To be a bystander does not mean people actively take part in the exclusion of Black people — it simply means that they are not actually doing anything about it.
The football stage poses one of the biggest challenges to the all–inclusive multicultural vision. This is because of the sport’s built-in framework of “keeping a level playing field”.
The ideas of equal opportunity and leveling the playing field can, indeed, make footballing institutions blind to experiences of race because they favor neutrality.
More alarmingly, football presents the occasional opportunity for people to perpetuate racism by saying hate speech in the “heat of the moment”. As a result, football is one of the harshest professional environments to work in as a member of the Black community.
Optimistically, there have been high-profile initiatives to try to start to tackle racism across Europe like Thierry Henry and Nike’s “Stand Up Speak Up,” the Premiere League’s “No Room for Racism,” and Kick It Out’s efforts. Since the death of George Floyd in the United States, could’ve been me, and the public uproar calling out injustice on social media, was me, high-profile players have also started to spread awareness on racism.
Turning from a bystander to an advocate for change does not have to change your whole life, like quitting your job, it begins with reflection and a willingness to learn and act when you witness wrongdoing.
Importantly, however, there has to be an integral effort to tackling racism rather than just performative “speech acts”. A consistent criticism of governing institutions in football, as by Richarlison, is that they condemn racist behavior only “on paper” rather than trying to engage with it.
Given the finances of the highest levels in football, a penalty fine of several thousand dollars is not going to transform the culture of the industry, not even in an incremental way. FIFA has to commit to listening and exploring experiences of exclusion, to understand the “everydayness” of racism, to start to try to transform the culture of football. By shedding light on experiences of exclusion, FIFA will also find itself (and other institutions) moved to action to advocate for large-scale change.
There are proven advantages to being more inclusive in an anti-racist fashion as football clubs can keep a high number of sponsorships, attendance levels high, public funds, and a better relationship with the entire fanbase where no one feels excluded.
FIFA needs to first hold itself accountable for its commitment to everyone who feel excluded, and engage in all-inclusive, meaningful actions to stamp out discrimination. These actions may not be easy, and they should not be either—but, it is far less uncomfortable than staying in the echo chamber of criticism.
Inclusion is a communal effort, and governing institutions have a lot of work to do to make many in the football community feel safe and valued.