Racism on the pitch

Sohail Jannesari
4 min readAug 16, 2019

I was playing football for my club and, in the middle of the game, my teammate started racially abusing me. I didn’t say anything, just waited for the deluge to finish. After the abuse was over, the referee half-heartedly asked if I was okay. My manager didn’t mention it after the game and the player faced no sanction. Quite reasonably, I was considering leaving my club. A friend of mine told the manager about my plans and, instead of apologising, I was made to feel guilty for considering leaving.

The racism didn’t end with the verbal abuse from my teammate. It was continued with the referee, my friend and my manager. It was structural and present at all levels of the chain. It’s this fact which is absent from many well-meaning discussions around football and racism. It was absent from a recent article in Football365, a relatively progressive football website. The article was based on the author’s conversations with football fans who had shouted racist chants during football matches.

Football365’s article suggested that you have Racists and Not-Racists. The Not-Racists, may say racist things but are fundamentally good lads. They are the sort of people who “don’t have a racist bone in their body”. Both groups are, however, racist. One group is overt, the other is covert, often subconscious. Being a racist isn’t only about having fascist beliefs around racial superiority and difference. It’s about ignorance and using your power in society to denigrate and discriminate against others. Even if its subconscious, the roots of racial slurs are different to simply picking on an obvious characteristic to bully someone with, as one interviewee suggests.

You don’t even need to use racial slurs to be racist in the context of football. It could, for instance, be in the attributes you ascribe to black players. I have often come across the stereotype that black players are quick and strong, but not intelligent. It could even be linked to who you recognise; an image of the grime artist Stormzy was used in place of the Manchester United player Lukaku in an Irish newspaper. It might simply be in an ignorance of why it’s not acceptable for the Athletico Madrid player, Griezmann, to black up.

There is a bit too much concern with the label ‘racist’ and people immediately want to say “I’m not a racist”. If you have any privilege based on your race, you are almost certainly going to be racist. As a brown Iranian man, I am racist in the context of this society. We shouldn’t spend our time arguing whether the person who said the racist thing was or wasn’t a racist, it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t make any sense. Time is better spent on acknowledging that the racism came from us and thinking about what we can do to unlearn it. This acknowledgement is crucial in tackling the problem.

Tackling racism in football is a difficult project and we all need to help each other. I want to hear about people’s journey unlearning racism. This is something the Football365 article skirted over. One interviewee simply described meeting people from a variety backgrounds and then, easy as you like, shifting into the Not Racist category. What were the conversations he had with people which helped change his mind, the missteps and the difficult dilemmas? In a similar vein there needs to be an acknowledgment that the journey never really ends, that it’s a life-long commitment, a genuine struggle. You’ll keep making mistakes and you’ll keep needing to grow from them.

We have a responsibility to change society as well as ourselves, not simply apologise. Too often, the narrative centres around white guilt, an absolution and a process of moving on. The Football365 article has a redemption arc with one of the “former” racists telling the story of how he apologised to his son’s Nigerian wife. While it was oddly touching, I’m not sure how important it is that he feels less guilty and there’s obviously still more work to be done if he’s treating his daughter in law as a representative for black people. If anything, the man talking honestly to the journalist about his racism was much more powerful and useful than his apology.

Many well-meaning discussions on racism in football don’t acknowledge the structures behind it, the different forms it takes and the need for a lifelong commitment to unlearning it. Without this depth, many articles on racism miss the point and end up seeming a little fatalistic. The Football365 article, for example, ends by saying how sanctions against fans don’t stop racism in cases where it is “your word against mine”. But it’s not just the overt racism we need to change, we should be much more ambitious than that and change attitudes from their roots. That’s why sanctions, though perhaps useful in the short term, aren’t nearly enough and, alone, are even superficial. We need creative, grassroots and long-term solutions. People say that football won’t change until society does. But football is so fundamental to communities across the UK that if society needs to change then football is a good place to start.