Football has always been a sport that I have loved to watch. Whether it has been with friends or family, or even fellow football fans, it has always been an exciting spectacle that is full of fun, tension, energy, passion and of course, competition. On top of this, I have always believed football and the facets of the game and the wider football culture as a whole, can change the world and people’s lives for the better.
Throughout my childhood football has always been a presence in my life in some kind of capacity. I grew up hearing and remembering a lot about the Neville brothers, Teddy Sheringham, Stuart Pearce, Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne, Robbie Fowler, Alan Shearer, Steve McManaman and David Seaman, to name a few. They were some of the most talked about football players of that time and remembering them is very easy. However, if you were to ask me how many players from a minority background that I remember from that time, the number shrinks exponentially.
I could offer to you Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole and Sol Campbell quite quickly because Dwight is from my mother’s home country of Trinidad and Tobago, so I wouldn’t be forgiven for forgetting someone from my ancestral homeland. I remember Andy Cole because I watched a lot of Manchester United on TV growing up as they were the first team I ever saw on TV and got introduced to. Andy was a fantastic player for them and one who stuck out to me because he looked similar to my dad and I – or so I thought at least! Finally, I remember Sol mainly because of his physical size, presence and for being a defender which I thought was the ‘opposite’ of Andy Cole.
After that, my memories will struggle until maybe around the year 2000/01. This isn’t to say outright that the system is racist, there just weren’t more people from a minority background in the game and so they weren’t getting opportunities. But what I am curious about is how players from that time were reported on and spoken about, and in some cases promoted and advertised.
The price of [social media] openness has also led to a smaller culture of toxicity and abuse where people feel that because they have anonymity and are behind a screen, they can do and say what they want without consequence
The climate of football today, in my opinion, is one that has come a long way since I was born. But yet for all the things that it does do and has done, there is still a lot of work to be done to keep building on that progress. I am of the mind-set that football has become a lot more open to fans thanks to the emergence of things like social media, and now we live in a world where we are connected to our clubs and their players 24/7 if we want. We are seeing and gaining insight into training and preparation at clubs and are also able to see the more individual and human element in things like how players spend their free time or celebrate that big win with teammates. On top of this, we can connect with fans all over the country and across the world to share in and enjoy football.
But sadly, the price of this openness has also led to a smaller culture of toxicity and abuse where people feel that because they have anonymity and are behind a screen, they can do and say what they want without consequence. What I think we are seeing is an evolution, to a degree, of what was happening in the past mixed in with a newer culture based on ‘trolling’. As such, it sometimes tends to be the case that it is young people who are indulging in this behaviour, and sometimes through nothing more than sheer ignorance and/or stupidity that they end up using abusive language without actually considering what it is they are saying. This of course is not always the case and some abuse is sadly borne from a hatred and intolerance of others.
Another point of consideration is the role of politics and what prolific people in the field are saying to stir up such sentiment among their fan-bases. This too is sometimes echoed in abusive messages and posts in the online culture and climate.
No matter at what level it is played or observed, football has always been a driving force in bringing people and communities together. Whether it is kids having a friendly kick-about using jumpers for goalposts, or watching your team in a final for a major championship, the principle stands that we are all on this journey together as one.
Sadly, there are still cases both in sports and the wider society where discrimination, racism, hate etc. are very real and very big problems that need positive and proactive actions and changes. In particular, there is a sentiment that because some BAME footballers in the higher tiers of English football make more money than the average person, that this somehow invalidates their right and reason to speak out and complain when they are abused. The expectation is that they should, “deal/live with it” and “move on” because of this notion, and in a few cases the offending statement(s) are sometimes dismissed as ‘banter’. This mentality is dangerous to me because it completely disregards and shuts down any discussion about how the affected person feels and the hurt they are experiencing as a result, and while a lot of this could be dismissed as jealousy I do think that in some instances there is a deeper element to it.
Furthermore, it has also been suggested that speaking out on racism is “playing the race card” or is somehow a personal or general mental weakness on the affected person’s part or anyone in wider society who calls attention to the issue. To me, this shows a blatant lack of understanding and empathy on the issue, as well as justifying and validating the thinking and behaviour that I deem incorrect, and further highlights why more work must be done to educate others and why solidarity with the affected is visible, clear and necessary. Topics like this will always be polarising, divisive or controversial, and there certainly is no one right answer to it. However, I do think that professional sports like many other industries have a huge and important role to play in sending out and promoting the right messages.
It has also been suggested that speaking out on racism is “playing the race card” or is somehow a personal or general mental weakness on the affected person’s part or anyone in wider society who calls attention to the issue
In recent years, we have seen football use its voice to stand in solidarity with victims of natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and with the LGBTQ+ community – plus many more. So, as such, seeing the world of football lend its voice to Black Lives Matter is to me unsurprising, but necessary.
There will always be the argument that “football should focus solely on football” and I will be the first to admit that in an ideal and perfect world, that is exactly what I’d want. But that isn’t the world we live in, and as such, there are times when societal issues or condemnable behaviour must be challenged and met with a clear and firm united message. This is done using the biggest platforms and stages available, showing the world what we stand against, but also to show communities and people exactly what we do stand for and who we stand with.
Football being involved with BLM is an important thing. We have recently seen instances, not just in the UK but in Europe and beyond, where players are getting bananas and coins thrown at them, racist abuse chanted/sent online, or gestured to them. In wider society, we are seeing racial profiling, disproportionate uses of force and incoherent sentencing and charges for minorities. This has stoked a sentiment of fear, anger, frustration and a feeling that we don’t belong anywhere, we aren’t safe anywhere, and that no one is looking out for us at all but us. As such it is important now more than ever before for sports, teams, players, fans, and sponsors to extend a hand and send the message that many feel is currently missing from the world right now.
We have had previous initiatives in the past where T-shirts are made, slogans are put up, the message is broadcast and everyone is encouraged to get behind the project. However, while the goodwill and intent are there, the overall effectiveness of the message and the actions that follow it remains inconclusive. This is why when we see players taking a knee I think it is something that tries to educate a wider audience about a very real, serious and uncomfortable issue, but also to send a clear message as a person, as a team and as an industry and in turn, try to inspire others in multiple different ways.
When we see players taking a knee I think it is something that tries to educate a wider audience about a very real, serious and uncomfortable issue, but also to send a clear message as a person, as a team and as an industry
As I previously mentioned, football has always been an exciting spectacle that is full of tension, passion, and of course, competition. Also with this, football encompasses the idea of individuals working, training, learning and practising together as a team to achieve a mutual common goal along with individual personal goals. These players and fans will go through a lot together; highs, lows, victories, defeats and quite unsurprisingly, it’s not uncommon for a lot of people to meet other people and form deep and powerful relationships together. It’s not uncommon either to hear the term ‘football family’ being used to describe that closeness and intimacy that is shared, and some of the best personal stories I’ve heard are about how people have come together to support and help each other with things sometimes unrelated to football.
Race in my view is something that should follow a similar pattern where we seek to learn more about people from other races, and we should work to demonstrate that love, consideration, respect and understanding as we learn and grow together and support each other throughout. Like with football, we need to celebrate what it is we are seeing. We need to be critical, reflective and supportive during the tougher days but no matter what, we must remember we are all one family that is sharing this life and world together.
In conclusion, positive strides have been made and whilst these times are not on the same level as some of the notable times of the past, there is still a long way to go on this journey and a lot more learning and understanding to be done together.
As a 32-year-old black British guy and fan of football, this journey is one that can be tiring, sad and frustrating at times, with a deep internal worry and concern that things are moving backwards. But at other times it can be one where I see the good in people and what I think should be happening unconsciously, and that’s people from all walks of life supporting each other, standing together and resolutely rejecting ideologies, acts and ways that seek to destroy and divide the very foundations of what makes football so great.
In the meantime, there must be a critical, fair, honest and reflective look at the issue of race in things like the press and media and how it is reported and portrayed, to other things outside of that such as employment and opportunities available to people from a minority background. Such change isn’t something that can or will happen overnight. At a time when there are still subtle micro-aggressions, stereotypes and things of a similar nature, education on the issues is key and is the only way things will improve.
I remain hopeful that the movement we are seeing now will be the push and catalyst that is needed to make people stop, think and consider a bit more about the things they say, do, or how they conduct themselves around others. As more people do so and take time to listen to what is happening, more voices will join in to try and secure a better future for everyone. It is no longer enough to excuse oneself from the discussion and to proclaim you are doing enough when we are still seeing people suffer from this. Education will hopefully encourage curiosity and engagement which I feel are the things we need to see in order to see real progression and change on the issue.
The most important thing above all is for us to try and embrace everyone in our lives and take care and protect them as if they were our own family. There will always be people that seek to destroy and divide, and very well may be beyond any real help. But the first thing we need to do is to try to educate, not vilify and deny outright. We need to also listen as to why certain people think the way they do and I hope that through engagement, discussion, learning and understanding the foundations for a better future await and can be built.
To me, race and colour should be viewed in the same way football shirts are for teams. Each team is well known for a certain colour or theme that becomes a core part of their identity. That shirt, that badge, and that colour, carry the prestige, story and history of the team and even though over time it may change slightly or evolve, the core aspect of the shirt remains the same. Whether it is a player or fan, there is a great sense of pride and love that is born from wearing these shirts. I feel that colour and the subject of race should follow a similar pattern.
With the many races out there in the world that all have detailed and extensive stories, histories, legacies and identities, the question remains why is it that we can show such love, respect and pride when wearing a football shirt and embrace and celebrate a team’s colours and admire them, but we can’t always extend those same feelings, show the same energy and show similar admiration when it comes to meeting new people?
Words by Nathan Goredema | Photography by Kelvin Stuttard & Planet Fox