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Racism in Football


Whilst racist activity both in and around football grounds has been a feature of the 1970s and 1980s, racism within professional football in Britain has, historically, been tied to the nature of British society, in particular its colonialist and racist past. Cohen (1988) has suggested that by virtue of its imperialist phase, racism is constitutive of what has become a “British way of life”. This fact has also been reflected in English football, which was historically disinclined to co-operate, or have routinised contact with so-called ‘lesser’ footballing nations. FIFA, for example, was set up without English support in 1904, and the England team did not take part in the World Cup Finals until 1950, at which point they were summarily humiliated (0-1) by the unconsidered USA.

Later in the decade (1950s) the Football League unsuccessfully opposed the involvement of English clubs in European club competitions. Elements of the ‘glorious insularity’ of British football’s past is today echoed in the patrician racism revealed in comments made by football managers and senior football officials regarding black players; ‘They’ have an innate lack of discipline and consistency; a chip on their shoulder; a dislike of the cold etc. Such comments serve only to perpetuate stereotypes by working upon racial myths about black footballers, who are variously alleged to lack ‘bottle'”; are “no good in the mud”; and “have no stamina”. Yet, these comments are but everyday examples of the kind of corroding, casual racism which has traditionally permeated professional football throughout the administrative, coaching and playing levels of the game. Only now are such views being effectively challenged and reassessed inside the sport, though for aspiring British Asian footballers a new set of stereotypes have to be overcome.

However, it would be unfair to suggest that the same racist attitudes and practises have been present at all football clubs at all times as there are considerable differences between the traditions at different clubs. For example, clubs such as West Bromwich Albion, pioneered the signing of black players in the modern period, and in the late 1970s, WBA fielded the talented black trio of Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson and in doing so attracted considerable local black support. At many other clubs, however, attitudes towards black players seem to have been rather different. Even today it is not unusual for directors, managers and coaches to be openly racist about black players. Sport is a common site for racism, in part because ‘biological’ and genetic assumptions about the physical capabilities of blacks are set alongside racist assumptions about their supposed intellectual limitations. It is strong in Britain because of the historical links between sport, the nation and Empire which themselves emerge out of racist traditions including, of course, slavery.

In sport, racism can be seen in a system called ‘stacking’. This refers to the disproportionate concentration of ethnic minorities in certain positions in a team, which tends to be based on the stereotype that they are more valuable for their physical skills than for their decision making and communication qualities. In American football there has been a tendency to place ethnic players in running back and wide receiver positions. In baseball, until fairly recently, they have tended to be in outfield positions. According to Grusky’s theory of centrality, this restricts them from more central positions, which are based on coordinative tasks and require a greater deal of interaction and decision making. This is also refers to midfielders in football. Significantly, coaches who make these decisions are generally white. When existing coaches need to appoint a new coach, they are likely to select one with similar ideas. This shows us an example of racism in sport, which unfortunately is still occurring today.

‘Let’s stamp racism out of football’ This was a large scale, national campaign which begun in 1993/4. It was intended to cut racial harassment out of football. It was supported by CRE/PFA (Commission for Racial Equality and Professional Footballers Association) and supporters groups, the FA, the Football Trust, the Premier and Endsleigh Leagues. In 1994/5, over 10% of clubs took specific action. It is now simply called ‘Kick it Out’ and has received support from subsequent Sports Ministers. The anti-racism campaigns were initiated by fans themselves culminating in the national campaign. The focus has now shifted to study to what extent racism exists at the ‘institutional’ level. It is a recognition that clubs who reap financial benefits of fielding players from ethnic minorities should also show a greater responsibility and consideration for all its customers or members. It was highlighted in the media as a serious issue requiring action, with particular regard to Paul Ince and Andy Cole. Concern is also felt that ethnic minority players should experience equal opportunities in reaching the very high levels of the game.

Over a ten-year period 50% of black players played in forward positions. This can mean occupying glamorous positions, high goal scoring and higher transfer fees. Average black players in the Premier League commanded transfer fees �1 million more than white players. However, the main difference occurs in the career paths taken by black footballers. Few break their way into management positions, for example as directors, as FA committee members and so on. Also few Asian players have broken through into the professional ranks. Reasons for few Asian players becoming professionals are that they are very religious and spend a lot of time on Sundays praying which means they do not participate from a young age because most games are on Sundays, most Asians do other sports due to their culture, there is a lack of Asian role models, their small body size and they may feel like outsiders and be victims of racism.

Racism in football is not confined to the British game. Abuse of black and ethnic minority players has disfigured football in many European countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Italy, and France, as well as many eastern European nations. In 1991 Fritz Korbach, manager of Heerenveen, was censured by the Dutch footballing authorities for racially abusing his country’s black international star, Brian Roy. During Euro 96, Dutch midfielder Edgar Davids was sent home after complaining that black players were excluded from tactical meetings and had no input into the team, these privileges only being extended to white members of the team. Racist chanting and banana throwing greet blacks in Belgian football on a regular basis. Aston Villa’s Dalian Atkinson returned from Spain after one season with Real Sociedad, unhappy with the reception he received, and identifying racial abuse as a major factor in his rapid departure from the Spanish Club. Paul Ince also complained about open abuse during his spell with Inter Milan in Italy, and British-based players have been abused in Italy and in parts of Eastern Europe on a regular basis in club competitions.

A new European anti-racism in football network FARE has recently been established. This collects and disseminates information on football racism in Europe and also supports fan groups and clubs in anti-racist activities and events.

The difference in performance between black and white sports people has occasionally been explained by physiological factors with some evidence suggesting that there are physical differences between races which account for the predominance of black sports people in sports demanding speed and power (sprinting and boxing). The suggestion is that black people have longer legs, narrower hips, wider calf bones, greater arm circumference, denser bones and an elongated body structure which causes more efficient heat dissipation. Ian addition theories that American slavery weeded out the weak, as only the strongest survived the cramped conditions and hard work therefore creating a ‘super race’ of today. The limitations of these theories are that most of the research has been carried out on highly trained black sports people, and therefore the results may be due to a training effect rather than there genetic background.

There are three main types of racism. Individual racism is overt of blatant racism, involving individual acts of oppression on the grounds of someone’s race. This can include racist activities or comments. Ideological racism is created by people stating ideas so strongly that they become believed as fact. These ideas are not based on fact, but can be believed and so create discrimination. In institutional racism within society, the power positions tend to be held by white, middle class males, for example football coaches and managers. If these people maintain ideological stereotypes about black people, they are unlikely to appoint black people to positions of power, therefore the oppressed populations do not achieve the power that is necessary to change the system.

Racism has become quite controversial in football in the last 10 years; this is mainly because of more foreign players coming into football. However the racism in football is not always about skin colour, because sometimes it is bout women however, this is mainly regarded as sexism. They are not allowed to play or if they do play they get abuse shouted at them.

I personally think that anybody either man or women, whatever their colour should be allowed to play football at whatever level they want. It is wrong if two players have exactly the same ability but one is white and one is coloured that one of them should get chosen and not the other. However this has happened before and it should never happen again. It is not just the players on the pitch but also the fans that are in the stand. I occasionally visit Ipswich matches and in the stands there is plenty of abuse shouted at the players and sometimes it is racist. Young children go to matches and they hear this language and think it is ok. Is that how we want our younger generation to behave, as racists? However unless we do something drastic then that is what is going to happen.

If children hear this language at the matches they might start using it out on the streets. Certain footballers have recently been in the news because they attacked an Asian boy. In the news it was reported that they had been drinking one of the Leeds players threw a punch at the Asian and then they chased him and beat him down. No one knows why the punch was thrown but that started it all. People are saying it’s the Asians fault for fighting back but anyone would. Is that how we want our footballers to be shown, as racists. These were top class players and they brought disgrace to our nation.

However it is only a small minority of fans and players who are racists however they could still spoil the “beautiful game”.

It is not just the colour of a person’s skin that can cause racism but also their origin. When we have so many foreigners in our teams then the fans shout abuse. I think that we should have a limit to how many foreigners a team can have, because soon teams like Chelsea will not have any English players left. For example they now only have about 2 English players in their starting eleven.

The next main type of racism or discrimination is sexism in football. I believe that men and women should be equal. So when women play football the fans should not be shouting abuse. Some women find it amusing but some players will find it offensive. I have never visited a woman’s match but I have heard that people do shout abuse sometimes, at the women. Is this how we want our children to treat women, they are just as equal as us so we should give them the respect they deserve.

The 2000s present, potentially at least, the opportunity for a new era within British football. The restructuring of the game, a massive ground improvement programme, a revitalised commercial interest in the game, rising attendance and the general improvement in fan behaviour has placed football firmly back in its place as a central part of the cultural fabric of the nation. Within the national sport black and Asian participation is not only to be welcomed; it is absolutely necessary for the future of the national game. This is not to mention the wider social benefits of a sport, which accommodates black and Asian spectators and players. The way forward is succinctly outlined by the CRE/PFA campaign, which states that:

” If football is to be played and enjoyed equally by everyone, whatever the colour of their skin, and wherever they come from, it is up to us all, each and every one of us, to refuse to tolerate racist attitudes, and to demand nothing less than the highest standards in every area of the game”.


Internet: FA website, History of football website, Ipswich football team website, England football team website, kick racism out of football website and the university of leicester website.

Books: Racism in football, physical education and sport and sport and P.E.

Other resources: Encarta 2000 cd, Grolier multimedia encyclopedia and a leaflet on racism.