Football: racism in the beautiful game


Mario Balotelli, Patrice Evra, Kevin Prince Boateng and Dani Alves are just some of football’s most decorated players to have endured racial abuse from fans in the past few seasons.

For eighteen months, Dr Mark Doidge, a sports sociologist, has been studying the efforts to combat racism of three of Europe’s biggest clubs – one in Poland, one in Germany and one in Italy . Last month he presented his findings to UEFA at their headquarters in Geneva.

Alex Burd caught up with him on the phone to discuss his report. He started by explaining how he picked his case studies.

Mark Doidge: I used Legia Warsaw in Poland, Borussia Dortmund in Germany and Roma in Italy. The reasons for these clubs was twofold really. One was to have a representative of a club from the north, south and east of Europe so you get a fairly wide geographic spread. The other one was through discussions with UEFA, the clubs should be of sufficient size but also have a bit of contestation within the fan group so it wasn’t a universal group with a particular political persuasion. In Italy especially fan groups have political persuasions and some of them are seen as left wing or right wing. Left wing groups might automatically incorporate anti racism into their approach whereas if you chose a club like Roma which had a mixture of groups with political persuasions you get a sense of contest and a real sense of what’s happening on the ground.

AB: So looking specifically at Italy, we’ve seen one of Italy’s most prominent black players, Mario Balotelli, receive racial abuse as he trained with the national team ahead of this summer’s World Cup. What are Italian clubs like Roma doing to counteract this?

MD:That’s an excellent question and it’s a very easy answer – very little. One of the recommendations I made in my report to UEFA is that the clubs should support anti-racism measures. That way they can remove it from being an ideological approach. Unfortunately anti-racism has been tied into a left wing identity politically in Poland and Italy, and this automatically gets rejected by those who don’t see themselves as left wing. This liberal lefty thing they don’t want to be incorporated with. Whereas when the football club takes it on board, it’s still political but it’s no longer an ideological position. It’s human rights, it’s common sense, it’s a normal thing that should be done.

One of my recommedations to the UEFA was that Borussia Dortmund was the model club for taking a real interest in this and taking it seriously. There is a picture of Gundogan, one of their players, holding up a club scarf saying ‘against racism’ and this was something you could buy in the club shop. The club also support a fan project which runs modules on civil courage which teaches interaction without resorting to violence and being assertive in public.  There is another on cultural learning and another on anti-racism and the far right. They hold these within the club stadium and participants get a club tour at the end of it. So to me Borussia Dortmund are the model club; unfortunately from what I saw in Legia Warsaw and Roma this hasn’t been taken on board.

AB: If we go back two years Polish football’s record on racism was under heavy scrutiny ahead of the 2012 European Championships. So you would suggest   that these fears of racism towards black players had some basis with Legia?

MD:  That’s a very good question. There was that BBC Panorama programme which provided a good case study on how the media present things, and the impact that has.  There are two things of at work here. First I feel, a personal opinon, that the British media are very good at pointing the finger at other people as if to say ‘racism has dissipated in Britain but look at these foreigners, aren’t they uncivilised in comparison to Britain.’ Let’s not get away from the fact that Britain has had very similar problems in the 1970s and 1980s.  Although fantastic work has been done by the FA, by the Premier League, by Kick it Out, by anti-racism campaigns across Britain, it’s not to say that the battle has been won and racism has been consigned to history. There’s something very insidious about the media presenting foreign leagues and foreign groups In this way.

It’s also worrying. Football fans are not homogenous so you can’t suggest that all groups are far right or right wing or racist.

However, I did see far right stickers associated with Legia Warsaw. Legia Warsaw have been fined by UEFA for racism this season in the Champions League against a Welsh Side, The New Saints, and last season they were fined for displaying a massive banner saying ‘Jihad Legia’ in Arabic script when they played Hapoel Tel Aviv, no it was Maccabi Haifa, , in the Europa League. So obviously it’s about creating this very antagonistic approach to rivals.

Of course we can’t get away from the fact that creating antagonism is a part of football supporting. Fans will criticise opponents and belittle them in various ways. It could be about what a shit town they live in, the quality of their players, chanting about ‘shit ground, no fans’, it’s a way of saying if you’re that then we’re not that. And racism is incorporated into this culture of abuse, it’s about saying if you’re black, or gay, or feminine or have long hair then you are less masculine, you are less than our group and we are superior to you.

AB:  One of the parts of your report, when you’re in Italy, focused on the idea of what qualified as real racism and what qualified as merely, like you say, as ‘football supporting’, part of chanting, ‘banter’ I guess. This stems more towards education that starts outside grounds, is this something that football can tackle on its’ own?

MD: We shouldn’t get away form the fact that racism is part and parcel of everyday society when we have political parties, and we don’t need to look very far in Britain to find political parties commenting on British people – Lenny Henry being told he should go back to a ‘black country’ – it shouldn’t be surprising if those views are also reflected in football which is the most popular sport in Europe, indeed the world. Likewise, political parties in Poland and Italy have been very xenophobic so don’t be surprised if in the stadiums in those countries things are going to be said.

Far right groups have sought to connect themselves with Borussia Dortmund, too, but the club has more actively fought those attempts to make links with it.

MD: Absolutely and I think that’s something that’s so impressive about Borussia Dortmund. On one hand you could say it’s just a PR exercise, but they’ve gone so much deeper than just challenging it. They’ve taken it through the courts to fight the Borussenfront and Siegfried Borchardt, who’s the far right leader of this group within Dortmund. He’s tried to align Borussia Dortmund with his organisation and far-right organisations have used football to recruit fans. The National Front did it at Chelsea in the 1970s. Far-right groups have done the same in Italy and in Poland. This organisation [in Germany] has been associated since the 1980s, they’re a combination of far-right and hooliganism and as they’ve got more sophisticated they’ve started to use other types of association, particularly with Dortmund which has a strong, powerful symbol – yellow and black – which seems to be everywhere in the city and so much of the city seems to revolve around the football club, and they attract so many people. So it’s a powerful symbol to want to be attached to in order to promote an ideology – this is exactly what groups like the Borussenfront are doing.

But it’s good that clubs like Dortmund are challenging this which isn’t necessarily the case in Warsaw or in Roma. Groups associated with the far right are still operating there and this is partly because it comes back to your earlier question about what constitutes racism.

We have to be careful not to suggest that all football fans are far right racists or, more importantly, that all people who exhibit racism are far right because they aren’t. Only a handful, small groups, use football to make a political point. A lot of racism is what Les Back and John Solomos have called ‘organic racism’, it’s a reaction to events on the pitch, this culture of abuse where something has happened, someone has made a bad challenge and the fans abuse them and attack that player to give their team an advantage.

Now that would be considered by many fans as ‘common sense’. A football fan might say  ‘if he’s fat I’ll say he’s a fat bastard, if he’s a bald I’ll say bald bastard, and if he’s black I call him a black bastard’.

What they don’t understand is that they don’t call someone a white bastard and they also don’t engage in certain other forms of ritualistic racism against white people.

It comes down to a fundamental understanding of what racism is. In Italy, in particular, it’s seen as structural racism, explicitly forbidding people from getting jobs or having housing or getting rail fare or from the political process. The old metaphor, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, [but words will never hurt me]’ is pretty apt in Italy, where they say, words are just words, words don’t have any bearing and more importantly it’s not seen as leading to any of that structural racism.

To a certain extent that’s not the case in Britain or Germany where we understand that the words are quite important, that’s why I was so impressed with Borussia Dortmund. Their Ultras group went to the fanprojekt and suggested that they go on a trip to Auschwitz with some young fans and the club last year supported this by loaning the organisation the team coach. So the young people would be going on the team coach to Auschwitz and would be understanding that when you start this culture of abusing people for being different, in particular on ethnic and religious lines, then a possible outcome could be the systematic exclusion and genoicde. What was so important with Borussia Dortmund is that they link it back to Dortmund and say this is what is happening in Dortmund. So it wasn’t something abstract and in Poland, abstracted historically, but something that was rooted in the locality. That’s something that I don’t think is quite understood in Italy and Poland, that when you abuse someone verbally, you can create a culture which permits the more ‘structural’ racism to operate.

AB: You mentioned earlier the great work that groups like Kick it Out have done in the past twenty years, how do you think Britain compares to the countries that you’ve studied.

MD: For one thing you have to put it in context.  Britain has a longer history of immigration, so the problems that are impacting Italy and Poland now were happening around football in England 30 years ago. So these things aren’t unique to Italy and Poland, they were happening here. Italy only really started becoming a nation of immigration in the 1980s, Poland in the last ten years really. So they’re experiencing situations which are challenging their idea of nationality.  Again, that’s not completely removed from what’s happening in Britain at the moment. What does separate and create a distinctive situation in England from elsewhere, and create a distinct situation, is that we have a certain civil society.  Partly it’s grown up in the liberal tradition, where politicians tended to, even though Britain centralised quite early, politicians did tend to leave themselves out of civil society – they got involved in the economic aspects. Whereas in other countries, for example Germany and Italy, they’ve all been party to strong centralised government. Fascism, nazism in Italy or Germany and communism in Poland. This has a significant impact on civil society. Since the war however Germany has developed a strong civil society so they can build consensus in society. The constitution that was implemented after the war in Germany was about creating a consensus and no individual or party could assume such strong control. I think that explains why they have things like fanprojekts which are really about consensus building organisations associated with the football club, associated with the fans and the authorities which is about communication and negotiation. In Britain we don’t have that culture of consensus, but we do have civil society where groups will emerge to deal with specific problems that aren’t being tackled by the state. There are numerous charities in Britian and the anti-racism campaigns feed into that.  A lot of these come out of the 80s and 90s when football was going through a transformation. This was partly down to racism and hooliganism and anti-social behaviours, but also in the 90s there’s the economic transformation and commercialisation that we see now.  Fans step out and become more politicised around these issues. Racism becomes incorporated into that as something that’s unacceptable in our sport. Fans took it on themselves to fight and challenge and support those players who were victims of this abuse.

But let’s not forget that players themselves stood up. The cultural of football is often that to be a man to you have to shut up and put up with this abuse and that was what black players were accused of when they first raised the issue, that they should rise above it, that they were too think skinned and should get a thicker skin.  But actually thanks to their strength and to fans they actively campaigned against some of the clubs and the federations to get this taken seriously. So we have to explain it within a certain culture within Britain that doesn’t necessarily translate to other countries.

AB:  English football seems to see racism as a European problem, something that exists on the continent, something we’ve largely eliminated here. But if you look at English football’s makeup [at the highest governance levels] it’s very monolithic-  it’s white, old, middle class, upper middle class, men. Do you think that the fight against racism will always be on the backburner given the makeup of the people who govern the game.

MD:  I think ultimately it will always be a fight against people in positions of power and how well they reflect the wider make up of the group that they supposedly govern. It doesn’t always have to be along racial lines but along any demographic lines. The issue, and why I think you’ve got to be very careful saying racism’s been removed from Britain, we’ve had some very high profile cases involving players, for example, Luis Suarez and John Terry.  But there have been some incidences of very localised and individualised cases of racism in some games in the last couple of years in Britain.

And we’ve really got to ask ourselves the question ‘why are there so few black managers?’ We can argue that there’s a demographic lag as players – the generation of players from the 70s and 80s – start getting coaching roles when they retire. Well we’re in that space now and there should have been far, far more proportionally black and ethnic minority coaches over the last twenty years. Let’s be honest this conversation is exactly the same within boardrooms and the federations, and this is a very slow process. It’s one of those that’s very hard to fight . Most people are very keen to combat the very vocal expression of something that can draw negative attention to their club, but it’s much harder to get into the corridors of power. The situation at Manchester United is interesting in this case, David Moyes was sacked when the fans started getting on his back, but for much much longer the fans have been wearing green and gold scarves and campaigning against the Glazers. Unsurprisingly the Glazers are still there. So when the fans start campaigning against certain groups like managers or players they can get their own way but when it comes to challenging those in the boardroom they very rarely get their own way.  That’s the issue with racism. How do we campaign when he have so little power in the boardroom? I think this is why it’s very important for fans to get involved in other forms of political engagement, like supporters trusts, to try and get a voice in the boardrooms so that we can challenge some of these demographic problems as well as having a voice about some of the issues that face our clubs.

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