Gay footballers: fan attitudes limit progress

Congratulations to Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former German international footballer who came out as gay yesterday. I’m happy that he feels comfortable enough to go public about his sexuality, can act as a role model for those who want to be professional athletes, and has received widespread positive responses to his announcement.

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Sometimes being a football fan is hard

Guardian interview with Robbie Rogers

In the same week that the Guardian ran the linked interview with Robbie Rogers, who retired from professional football because of his sexuality, Sunderland have appointed Paolo Di Canio as their manager.

For those who don’t know, Di Canio is a former West Ham, Charlton and Lazio player, and has previously managed Swindon. He is also a Mussolini supporter and self-confessed fascist. David Milliband, the outgoing MP for South Shields has resigned from the Sunderland board because of Di Canio’s political views.

It is hard to enjoy a sport where being openly homosexual is career ending, while being openly fascist is perfectly acceptable. And how good are The FA, UEFA and FIFA really getting at fighting discrimination when fascists are able to be high profile managers but being gay means you won’t be able to play?
This sport is broken. Can we please start trying to fix it now?

In Defence of The Kick It Out Campaign

This weekend we have seen several high-profile black players refusing to wear the t-shirts of the Kick It Out Campaign, in protest at a perceived lack of action taken in tackling racism. While it is clear that not enough action has been taken by authorities to tackle racism both on and off the pitch around Europe, blaming Kick It Out is misguided and focuses on the wrong target.

First, some facts about the campaign:

  • Founded in 1993 as Kick Racism Out of Football
  • It employs seven staff.
  • 2010-11 season, it’s operating budget was £453,913 (or just over two weeks of Rio Ferdinand‘s and John Terry’s wages)

The reason why blaming the campaign is unhelpful is that they are essentially a lobbyist and a pressure group. They raise awareness of when racism and other forms of discrimination are taking place and look to challenge it. The campaign does not have any judicial or executive power to punish either players, clubs or fans. Their remit is to educate people and increase levels of awareness about where and why discrimination is a problem.

For who is really responsible for taking action against racism in terms of punishments, then it is the FA domestically and UEFA across Europe who are responsible. In terms of the world game, ultimately it is FIFA that is responsible. These are the people who ought to be challenged on their role in tackling racism, though they are much less easy targets than a seven-person pressure group.

As Jason Roberts, one of those to boycott the awareness week t-shirts, says in an interview with the BBC, “If Danny Rose, who I think acted excellently in the whole thing, and his team-mates walk off the pitch when they first hear racist abuse, guaranteed UEFA will start to change things”. See who it is that he says needs to change things? UEFA.

Both Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have commented that by boycotting the Kick It Out Campaign, black players are not showing that there needs to be more action against discrimination, rather they are simply undermining the one group that is working to expose it. It is counterproductive. The strongest action would have been to wear the shirt and acknowledge that not enough has been done, and that ultimately the responsibility for punishing discrimination in football is down to the authorities.

Kick It Out and their action weeks have helped to reduce the level of discrimination at football grounds, but it is not down to just them to make the changes that need to be made. There needs to be a tough stance taken by FIFA, UEFA and the FA. John Terry could, and should, have received a more lengthy ban, as should Luis Suarez. While there were differences in the offence, a higher level of punishment, even for first time offences, would send a real message.

As for what happened in Serbia during the week, Sol Campbell is right to call on UEFA to dock points. The best way to change the culture of fans and players in the game is by pressuring them to police themselves. When English clubs were banned from European competition because of hooligans, it drove the FA, the clubs and the fans to clean it up. The same must be done with discrimination. If a fan group make racist chants, then points should be docked, matches played behind closed doors and if things still do not change, then teams banned from competitions. Using Serbia as an example, if all of their national teams were banned from their next international tournament, then it might inspire their FA to take action, and the fans to start to realise that monkey chants at black players is totally unacceptable, anywhere.

UEFA handed out €20,000 fines during Euro 2012 for racist chants by Spanish fans, but allowed them to keep the €23m prize money. If abuse happens during tournaments, then for each incident, 15% of prize money ought to be deducted and donated to organisations such as Kick It Out and FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe) – so using the figures above as an example, that would be €3.45m given to the fight against discrimination, out of the pockets of those responsible.

More support should be given by players, teams and managers to groups like Kick It Out and FARE, but it is also down to those same players, teams and fans to pressure those charged with governing football to have strong, no tolerance punishments against discrimination. These ought to be the real target, not the groups who are trying to do just that.

Racism, Hypocrisy and John Terry

John Terry hands his boots to a fan after victory over Arsenal

The FA have released the written reason behind the John Terry verdict, the full text of which can be found on The FA’s website. It is clear that they did not believe his defence that he was simply repeating what had been said by Anton Ferdinand.

Terry now has two weeks to appeal against his four game suspension and £220,000 fine for misconduct. However, I hope that he does not appeal, accepts the punishment and moves on.

The easy comparison to make to this situation is to the one faced by Liverpool’s Luis Suarez last season, when the Uruguay international received an eight game ban for using racially offensive terms towards Patrice Evra. I felt massively uncomfortable with the actions of Liverpool as a club, and those Liverpool fans who stood so closely behind Suarez that they refused to believe that he could have done such a thing. I feel an even higher level of discomfort with this situation, since it is happening to the captain of my club.

Given that this has taken place at the club where I am a season ticket holder – and travelled to Munich for the Champions League Final last season – it is very easy to get caught up in the “he’s not a racist, he just said something racist” that I have heard Liverpool fans use as a defence for Suarez (along with the ever popular “but negro isn’t an offensive term in Uruguay”). From what I could hear coming from the seats around me in the away end at the Emirates, there was plenty of staunch Terry defenders: “One England captain, f**k the FA” being a particularly popular chant. There are a lot of Chelsea fans for whom Terry is still the “Captain, Leader, Legend” and support him accordingly by blaming Anton and Rio Ferdinand (who was certainly foolish with his “choc ice” comment, but hardly can be blamed for being related to someone), The FA, and anyone else except for the man in the number 26 shirt.

But I think that the FA were correct to bring disciplinary proceedings against Terry, even after he was cleared in court, since the two cover different legal areas. While the leniency of the suspension in comparison to Suarez does not send a particularly good message, that they felt fit to convene the panel is a good way to show that while you may not have committed a criminal offence, it was still an offense within the rules of the game.

I am uncomfortable cheering for Terry, as much as I admire him purely as a player I am very uncomfortable with him as a person given his past indiscretions and the appearance that he does not seem to learn from them. I have in the past said that if you use sexist language then it is right to call be called a sexist, and used a similar argument about Suarez. It would be immensely hypocritical of me and fellow Chelsea fans to not do the same with Terry. In both cases, ignorance is not a defence, and nor is using schoolyard ‘but he said it first’ logic.

I feel that while Chelsea dealt with the initial accusations better than Liverpool (I am so glad they didn’t bring out “Support John Terry” t-shirts in the way that Liverpool did), I believe that there is now a responsibility on the club to take actions that will show that no one is above reproach when it comes to their behaviour on or off the pitch, especially the club captain. Chelsea sacked Adrian Mutu for taking cocaine, as it was denigrating to both himself and the football club, and I think that the board and Mr Abramovich need to consider what is best for the club and team in the future, and whether or not that future should contain John Terry wearing either the captain’s armband or the club shirt.

Racism in Football: Bring in The Rooney Rule

It has not been a good twelve months for race relations in football. John Terry and Luis Suarez have seen to that. Some of the fans have not been much better, with several players, Ashley Young, Ashley Cole and John Obi Mikel among them, being targeted for racial abuse on Twitter. And let us not forget the guy who sent abuse to Fabrice Muamba’s twitter account after he had a heart attack on the pitch. These are just a few examples of explicit discrimination against prominent sports figures because of their race.

But what about people not getting chances because of the colour of their skin? Out of the 92 Football League clubs, only 3 of them employ managers of an ethnic minority. That is 3.2%. In comparison, according to the latest Cencus, minorities make up 12.5% of the UK population.

One way to help to combat this inequality is to bring in a UK equivalent of the NFL’s Rooney Rule. Named after the head of the NFL’s Diversity Committee, the Rule is essentially a condition that for every Head Coaching opportunity that comes up at any of the 32 NFL teams, there must be at least one minority candidate interviewed.

While this might strike some people as tokenism, it the extra opportunities has been reflected by an increase in the hiring of minority candidates (remember, they simply need to be interviewed, not given the job).

The Rooney Rule was implemented in 2003. At the time there were 2 minority head coaches in the NFL (Tony Dungy of the Colts and Herm Edwards of the Jets). That is 6% of Head Coaches. Within 3 years, that had gone up to 22%, with Dennis Green (Cardinals), Art Shell (Raiders), Marvin Lewis (Bengals), Lovie Smith (Bears) and Romeo Crennel (Browns) all in head coaching positions.

Currently, 18.75% of Head Coaches are minorities: Lewis and Smith from the above list, as well as Crennel now with the Chiefs, Leslie Frasier (Vikings), Ron Riviera (Panthers) and Mike Tomlin (Steelers) – who was hired having had Rivera also interview for the position. Having minority candidates applying for positions means that while they might not always be hired, there is both a recognition of talent (Smith’s Bears were defeated by Dungy’s Colts in Superbowl XLI, and Tomlin’s Steelers won Superbowl XL and XLIII), as well as an increase in the visibility of minority coaches for younger generations. There is no suggestion that any of these men were hired because of their skin colour, rather that the Rooney Rule has helped to increase opportunities.

Why not apply a similar rule in football? It will not mean that suddenly there will be a flood of high-level minority managers, but there ought to be an increase in numbers – and hopefully this will mean that instead of every minority manager being “a role model”, they can be recognised for their skills.It will also mean that candidates will be able to go through interviews and improve on how owners can see the viability of appointing minority managers – rather than it being either old white English men or foreign managers.

For those who will say that this is an example of positive discrimination or affirmative action, I remind you that the rule says you need to interview one minority candidate, not always give them the job. But if there are no minorities interviewed, then the chances of them getting employed in management positions are negligible. This action would be massively preferable to the current inaction.

Euro 2012 – UEFA Fail to Tackle Racism, Again

With Euro 2012 officially in the books, and the Spanish team showing that they are still the best national team around (and one of the best ever), the question of the best team and best player – Andres Iniesta – has been answered. One question that hasn’t, though, is when will UEFA get serious with tackling racist abuse of players by fans?

There were several fines handed down by UEFA to national Football Associations for the improper conduct of fans, as well as one fine for “improper conduct” to Nicklas Bendtner for wearing sponsored pants. The amounts shed light on where UEFA’s priorities lie:

Spain were fined €20,000 for racially abusing Mario Balotelli
Russia were fined €30,000 for making monkey noises at Czech Republic right-back Theodor Gebre Selassie.
Croatia were fined €30,000 for displaying racist banners in their match against Spain, then fined a further €80,000 for racial abuse of Mario Balotelli. Clearly the first fine had a massive effect.

Bendtner, however, was fined €100,000 for his Paddy Power pants.

Ambush marketing a worse crime in the eyes of UEFA than racial abuse? Given these fine amounts, it would seem so. Given that the racism fines were handed out to the Football Associations of each respective country, and Bendtner was fined as an individual (and given a one match suspension for Denmark’s next match, a World Cup qualifier) it makes them seem like even more token gestures. When you look at the amounts of prize money from the tournament, UEFA’s lack of real action appears even more stark:

Spain: €23,000,000
Russia: €10,500,000
Croatia: €10,500,000

Somehow I think that between the three nations, a cumulative fine of €160,000 will be more than tackled by a total prize money of €44,000,000.

Another interesting little side note is that Russia also have a suspended 6 point deduction hanging over their heads for the Euro 2016 qualifying phase, but UEFA chose not to activate it.

Personally, I believe that the best way for UEFA to tackle racism and fan problems is to hit those that it hurts the most – the fans. Remember when English clubs weren’t able to take part in Europena competitions because of hooliganism fears? That forced the hand of the FA, clubs and fan groups to get things sorted out, and I think that this is the direction UEFA ought to head in. My ideas include

  • Matches at tournaments played without fans of guilty teams – eg, at fist group game of World Cup 2014, Spain play with no Spanish fans.
  • Point deductions – either from qualifying or in the group stages of the next tournament. For instance, deduct 2 points for each incident of racist abuse by fans, either in a tournament, in qualifying or in  friendly matches. So for example, going into the next qualifying period, Spain are deducted 2 points, Russia 2 points and Croatia 4 points. If you limit the chances of the team qualifying, then the fans might peer-pressure each other into not shouting abuse, or carrying racist banners.
  • Take away prize money. Paltry fines don’t work, set a double standard and just make UEFA look either ineffective or negligent. If you deduct 25% of prize money for each instance of racist abuse (and in my mind, donate that 25% to charities fighting bigotry and intolerance in sport) then the FA in that country will work a hell of a lot harder to police things in the stands and make a stand, since they will be hit in the pocket.
  • Any combination of the above. If there are persistent breaches of the law, then they can be punished with a combination of actions.

Until UEFA show that they are serious about tackling racism in football, then it will be there, it will be blatant, and it will get worse. This is not a time for administrators to hide behind weak rules and cowardly attempts at enforcement, this is a time and an opportunity to really send a message.

Intolerance in Football: Fashanu, Terry, Suarez and UEFA

Intolerance in football is a problem. I don’t think you will be able to find many people who will disagree with that statement. Whether it is Luis Suarez and John Terry or the fact that there is only 1 professional football player who is openly gay, not in England, but in the entire game (for those of you interested, it is Anton Hysen of Utsiktens BK in Sweden). He is, for those who don’t know, only the second gay professional footballer ever, after Justin Fashanu. Out of the around 3,000 professional football players in England, there is not a single one who is able to be open about their sexuality. Not just for the sport, but for society, that is an embarrassment. But as John Amaechi pointed out recently, is this really a surprise when the board of the FA, who run the game in this country, have only just got their first female board member.

Some numbers:

3,000: approximate number of professional footballers in England

0: Openly gay professional footballers

£6,000: fine for former Leicester City player Michael Ball for tweeting homophobic comments

16: Number of professional clubs (out of 92) who are willing to openly back The Justin Campaign’s Football v Homophobia initiative.

These make for pretty depressing reading. The FA needs to do better – for a start by stepping up efforts to stamp out intolerance in any form (including anti-Semitism against Tottenham fans and players) by making the punishments for offences actually mean something. Suarez ought to have had a much stronger penalty – if fans are banned from grounds for racist chanting, why does a player only receive an 8 game ban? The fines for the likes of Michael Ball must be so steep that it is actually a disincentive to not display such bigotry. If clubs are made responsible for the actions of their players, then that would offer a real reason for them to police their own dressing rooms. For example, if Terry is found guilty, how about a points deduction. Similarly for Liverpool and Luis Suarez. If a player’s actions hurt not only him but his teammates, club and fans, do you think that might have an impact?

It is not just the FA who need to step up to the plate though – UEFA also need to make it known to clubs and fans that homophobia, racism and other abuse will not be tolerated. If fans at a match in Spain are making monkey chants, for example, then don’t fine the club €30,000 and say you are tackling the problem. That will make no difference to anyone. Games played behind closed doors, point deductions and exclusion from European competitions might. You did it for hooliganism, time to do likewise for bigotry. Make people think twice before they decide to hurl abuse at someone for the colour of their skin, their religion or their sexual preference.

Do I think that these things will happen? Given the record of UEFA and the FA, no.

On Luis Suarez: He has been found guilty. His punishment ought to have been much harsher. Kenny Dalglish, those supporting shirts and the actions of some of their fans should make everyone involved or supporting of Liverpool football club look at what their club has been condoning, and they should feel disappointed at the action of some of their people. I will boo Suarez for the rest of his career in England.

On John Terry: He has not been found guilty of anything yet. As things stand, I support Terry as a Chelsea player and club captain. If he is found guilty, then he deserves to be neither of these things. The club dispensed with the services of Adrian Mutu when he was found to be using drugs, (a decision I supported), and I believe that a similar stance must be taken with racism and intolerance. Leicester fired Ball after his homophobic comments, which was exactly the right decision. We must, as a club, make the same stand with Terry. There can be no excuse, and although I have sung songs in support of Terry for a decade, the club and its responsibility to the community must come first. Innocent until proven guilty. If guilty, then he must be punished.

I am a Chelsea fan, and East Stand season ticket holder. I am disappointed every time elements of our fans chant about Hillsborough, Munich or sing anti-Semitic songs at Tottenham fans, and I did not boo Anton or Rio Ferdinand for their stance on John Terry. I do not do any of these things, and a lot of the people who sit near me in the East Stand upper also don’t. It is important to know that not all football fans who go to games week in, week out sing such offensive things. But until everyone in the ground chooses not to allow songs about the deaths of fellow fans, or a players race or sexuality, we need to keep pushing for better education, more pro-active administration and harsher penalties for those who persistently display such intolerance, bigotry and hatred.