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  • Brittany Hernández

Racism in Football

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

As the world's most popular sport, football attracts millions of international fans. Its popularity also means that players come from a variety of countries, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds. While the team sport is intended to be an exciting spectacle for all, players of colour are often the target of racial discrimination, both on and off the pitch.

Many footballers of colour receive racial abuse during matches and on social media. Although they've tried to ignore the harassment and report it to football's governing bodies, it begs the question: is any progress being made to combat ongoing racial discrimination in football?

This guide will take a brief look at how racism is perpetuated in football.

What does racism in the football world look like?

In the world of football, racism comes in many forms – some are more obvious than others, but the intention is the same: to discriminate against a person of a different race. Cases of racism have occurred between fans and players, players and other players, and even between sports commentators and the players.

Racism in football happens before kick-off, during the match itself – when a particular team member scores or misses a shot – and on social media afterwards.

"Racism in football goes beyond the Premier League."

Racism in football doesn't just occur in England's Premier League. Instances of racism have been reported in other major football leagues too, including Spain's La Liga, Germany's Bundesliga, and France's Ligue 1. Cases of racial abuse haven't stopped there, as international competitions, such as the FIFA World Cup and the UEFA Euros, have reported instances of racism during matches, in the stadiums, and even in the build-up to events.

When racial abuse is identified, it’s typically reported to the clubs or local authorities, and to the sport’s governing bodies, who then take action on how to penalise the perpetrators. Many have argued, however, that the punishments don’t align with the severity of the crimes or do enough to prevent the abuse from reoccurring. Punishments can range from match bans to monetary fines, but generally lack consistency.

Who are the primary targets?

Frequently, the primary targets of racism in football are players of colour. There have been many high-profile cases that have been documented, and likely many that have not.

Of those documented, players including Emerick Aubameyang, Raheem Sterling, Mohammed Salah, and Marcus Rashford have all come forward with their stories of how they’ve been the targets of racial discrimination.

Back in 2018, Aubameyang – who plays for Arsenal F.C. – encountered non-verbal racial discrimination and was the victim of abuse during a match against Tottenham Hotspur F.C. When Aubameyang celebrated an Arsenal goal on the pitch, an angry crowd member responded by throwing a banana peel towards the player, before being removed from the stadium. The crowd member received a four-year ban from football matches and a minor fee. However, Aubameyang later expressed fears that the punishment wasn't enough and expected the abuse to return once the crowd member's ban was lifted.

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling has also spoken about receiving racial abuse on and off the pitch. In January 2020, two Manchester City fans pleaded guilty to racial discrimination against Sterling in a match dating back to 2018. The duo was initially reported to the club's officials as their racial slurs and remarks were heard by crowd members. They received an indefinite ban from Manchester City matches, while the Manchester Magistrates' Court handed them a five-year ban from all football matches.

More recently, Manchester United's Marcus Rashford has reported more than 70 messages of racial abuse and discrimination online after the 2021 Europa League final, which have also been passed onto local authorities for further investigation.

However, racial abuse towards footballers isn't only common among Black players. Liverpool F.C.'s Mohammed Salah has also been the target of discrimination due to his race and religion. In August 2019, a football fan was arrested and charged with racially/religiously aggravated intentional harassment when the individual doctored photos of Salah that depicted him as a terrorist and retweeted them across social media.

Manchester United player Marcus Rashford, target of racial abuse online
Manchester United player Marcus Rashford, target of racial abuse online

What role does social media play in the issue?

In recent years, more and more players have reported receiving racial abuse on social media platforms. In 2020 alone, nearly 3,000 abusive messages were written and more than half of those messages contained some form of racial harassment. The 2019/2020 season also saw approximately 282 reported cases of racial discrimination, a staggering 53% increase from the season prior.

As a result, players and clubs have called for more to be done in monitoring and deterring racial abuse on social media.

"The biggest tool that many abusers have online is their anonymity."

The biggest tool that many abusers have online is their anonymity to post as they wish without repercussions, which many believe should be taken away to prevent re-offenders from creating new accounts, spamming footballers' pages, and skirting around digital accountability.

Platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, have defended themselves by saying that they implement tools to combat racism and have teams to track online harassment. Despite this, it's difficult to completely censor all abuse as words, emojis, or phrases have different meanings and translations across territories.

Therefore, players are forced to report the abuse themselves, instead of having it automatically filtered out and removed altogether, which can be stressful and frustrating if the abuse is occurring en masse.

Is there anything being done to combat the discrimination?

Still, if racism is extremely evident in the football world, surely progress is being made to criminalise the behaviour and reduce it, right? Football’s governing bodies, including the Premier League, UEFA, and FIFA, have taken steps to punish those caught performing racist acts during matches or who target players with abuse on social media. But, as mentioned before, the punishments for racial abuse don’t tend to be consistent or authoritative enough to instigate long-term change.

As a result, campaigns such as the Premier League's 'No Room for Racism', have dedicated resources to educating others on the racism issues in football. Currently, the charity "Kick It Out" also serves as the Premier League's football equality and inclusion organisation with the primary purpose of tackling all forms of inequality and racial discrimination that occurs in football. The charity provides training materials and resources that encourage clubs, players, and fans to take a stand on discrimination.

Above those campaigns, the most prominent movement has been the 'Take a Knee' initiative, in which players kneel before each match to protest racial discrimination. The action was heavily influenced by American football player Colin Kaepernick, who initially decided to kneel during the U.S. national anthem as a sign of protest against racism and police brutality.

Since the movement became popular in the football world, it has allowed players to demonstrate their frustration with racial inequalities. However, as the campaign has progressed, it has also angered others who believe the movement isn't doing enough to fully diminish discrimination or creates a more significant divide in football.

What are the next steps?

While the current initiatives can offer stepping stones for racial equality, much more must be done at an international level to combat the racism that occurs in football. Social media giants must also take steps to safeguarding players from online abuse and punishing those that target them with lasting bans.

Football governing bodies are also at fault, as their punishments are inconsistent and don't offer enough long-term solutions to keep racism out of football beyond the punishment period.

Fans and commentators also have a role to play by educating themselves on racial discrimination and ensuring that they contribute positively to the racial dialogue, either through action, support, or advocacy, so football can continue serving as the world sport that brings people together.

For more articles and resources on this topic, head to our dedicated Racism, Islamophobia & Antisemitism section.

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