By Eddie McAteer, Sports Editor
Football has an incredible capacity to unite people across the world. Just last month we saw the outpour of support for Marcus Rashford’s brilliant initiative to help feed hungry children over the half-term holiday. Unfortunately, despite having such a positive impact, the footballing world undoubtedly has its issues.
For decades, racism has been a significant problem in the sport and it has reared its ugly head on multiple occasions this year. Just a few weeks ago, Barcelona’s 18-year-old prodigy, Ansu Fati, was compared to a ‘black street vendor’ because of his movement on the pitch. Closer to home, Wilfried Zaha was the victim of racial abuse from a 12-year-old on social media.
Experiences like these are all too common in football and made up part of a discussion ran by the Bristol BME Network in collaboration with an organisation called MOB Football. Chaired by Obafemi Alabi, the online event included three panellists: Danola Odeyemi, an academy scout for Chelsea, Juwon Akintunde, a former academy player at Brentford and QPR, and Olisa Odukwe, who currently plays for the University’s first team.
They covered issues including racial bias in football commentary, racism by fans and racism in football media ahead of an 11-a-side match between Bristol ACS (African Caribbean Society) and UWE ACS.
Addressing the problem of commentary, the panellists discussed the aspects that pundits pick up on when talking about players of different skin tones. Much of the language used to praise players of a darker skin tone revolves around physical attributes such as pace and power.
In contrast, players of a lighter skin tone are often praised for their intelligence and versatility. This racial bias is problematic because it ignores the clever play by players with darker skin and suggests that their only asset.
If people are picking up racial stereotypes outside of football, it is obvious that this will eventually permeate the footballing world.
In a similar vein, Odukwe recounted a story whereby he was told at youth level that ‘My dad told me that people like you were quick.’ Odukwe’s experience shows that from a young age people have already started to form the stereotypes that form the basis of these biases in commentary.
That is part of the reason that Odeyemi believes that ‘Football is a reflection of society.’ If people are picking up racial stereotypes outside of football, it is obvious that this will eventually permeate the footballing world.
Responding to forms of racism has been a significant part of the fight against the abuse. Some players react by walking off the pitch, others prefer to continue and silence fans with their performance. Odeyemi spoke particularly strongly about this saying ‘there is nobody that can make me walk off the pitch if I am the one being abused.’
Everyone is different, however, and many players would not hesitate to walk away from the game. Odeyemi stated that despite his own feelings, he would happily stop play if someone else felt that they wanted to do so.
Like walking off the pitch, taking the knee has been another powerful action when it comes race and sport. Across footballing leagues, teams have knelt before kick-off in a similar fashion to American Footballer Colin Kaepernick. The widespread use of the stance, however, has been criticised by Les Ferdinand, who was racially abused at different points in his career, saying, ‘The message has been lost.’
When asked about this statement, Odeyemi recounted an interesting story about one of the young players he had coached. He said that before the game, the boy took a knee and when asked why, he responded ‘I thought that’s what you do now?’ For the Chelsea scout, this supported Ferdinand’s statement but admitted that it could also have a positive impact if combined with education on the topic.
Turning our attention to the match, Bristol sadly lost 0-5 against UWE ACS in the 11-a-side friendly fixture. Taking place at UWE Hillside Gardens, the game followed the discussion and saw UWE dominate the game, taking advantage of an opposition goalkeeper who, I was informed, had never played before.
A 0-5 defeat is hard to take at the best of times, however when it is at the hands of UWE it hits even harder. Fortunately, this was part of something bigger. It was the opportunity to ‘Empower black players in Bristol and shine a light on them.’
Featured Image: Bristol ACS