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Does European Football Have a Problem with Racism? | Zuwanderung, Flucht und Asyl: Aktuelle Themen | bpb.de

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Integration as a Metanarrative Need for a New Concept References Lifestyle Migration What Is Lifestyle Migration? British in Spain Realizing a New Style of Life Outcomes of Lifestyle Migration Conclusion References Voting rights and political participation Introduction Political and Municipal Voting Rights Voting Rights for Nationals of Non-EU States Naturalization Recent Developments Conclusions References Frontex and the EU Border Regime Introduction Frontex — Questions and Answers The Development of a European Border Regime Externalization Technologization Border Economies On the Other Side of the Border Fence Is Migration a Risk? 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Conclusion References Does Germany Need Labour Migration? Introduction Labour shortages Labourmarket Conclusion Labourmigration References Dutch Integration Model The "Dutch model"? The end? Intention and reality A new view Where next? References Racism in European Football Impressum

Does European Football Have a Problem with Racism?

Niklas Schulteis

/ 15 Minuten zu lesen

Football is an arena that brings people together. But it can also produce exclusion – for example through implicit and explicit forms of racism. An overview.

Vinícius Júnior (Real Madrid) celebrates his team's first goal against FC Valencia on March 2, 2024. His symbolic gesture came almost a year after he stood with tears in his eyes on the same field where he was racially abused by some Valencia fans. (© picture-alliance/AP, Jose Breton)

Football as ‘colour-blind’

With Germany and its federation, the Deutsche Fußballbund (DFB), hosting the 2024 EUROs this summer, all eyes are once again on the popular sport. To capitalize on this momentum, the DFB launched a specific anti-racism campaign, built around the slogan that ‘Football time is the best time against racism’, that is supposed to target both the national football realm as well as local amateur communities. The concept of this campaign is a very important initiative for amateur clubs, as they are often the first contact point for young immigrants and refugees coming to Germany. Similarly, Spain’s top division in football, LaLiga, and the Spanish football federation RFEF have launched the #1voiceVSRACISM campaign. What these campaigns have in common is the idea that football as a sport exercised on the pitch will create inclusion and bring people together. However, this notion ties into a problem that is apparent through the different ranks of professional football, but especially in its decision-making structures and governing bodies – ‘colour-blindness’. ‘Colour-blindness’ in this context refers to the assumption of football being fully meritocratic, which proposes that performance on the pitch is the only thing that really matters in football. This assumption unfortunately is prevalent in many football-governing bodies and thereby leads to structural, implicit racism oftentimes being overlooked. This article will therefore further explore this mechanism by giving an overview over the most prominent cases of structural racism in professional football, explaining the explicit and implicit forms in which racism can manifest itself and reviewing measures to fight racism.

Examples of structural racism in professional football

There are numerous high-profile examples that stand in direct contrast to the ‘colour-blind’ sentiment that was explained above. In a press conference before the return leg against Manchester City in the Champions League (2024), Real Madrid player Jude Bellingham expressed frustration about how not enough is being done by football authorities to fight racism. This came only a couple of weeks after his Brazilian teammate Vinicius Junior broke down in tears during a press conference while explaining how the continued racial abuse he has received from rival fans increasingly overshadowed his passion for the sport. Since October 2021, LaLiga has filed 18 legal complaints regarding racist abuse against him. So, during the international break in March of 2024, the Spanish and Brazilian federation came together to host a charity game in support of Vinicius’ fight against racism. The only problem: the money was not actually donated to any charities, but remained with the football federations, whereupon sources close to Vinicius explained that the player himself was disappointed that the federations had missed an opportunity to stand by him. In similar fashion, Chelsea’s Lauren James and Nicholas Jackson have repeatedly been subject to racial abuse by fans over the course of their playing careers in England, with the involved clubs as well as the English Football Association (FA) issuing statements condemning these incidents. Yet, questions arise to how seriously the FA and the Premier League – the top division in English football – take these issues because just recently, a former member of the Premier League’s diversity and inclusion team sued the league itself for racial discrimination and harassment. A comparable discrepancy can be observed in Germany: In 2023 the DFB reported that the number of racist incidents in Germany had decreased over the past years – while an independent reporting unit based in North Rhine-Westphalia, which investigates discrimination in football, denied this, reporting rising numbers. While the DFB reported three racist incidents in professional football over the course of the 2022/23 season, the reporting unit registered a staggering 95 incidents with racist or antisemitic background over the same period of time.

Explicit forms of racism

When thinking about racism in football, racist chants are usually one of the first things that come to mind. In a study concerning such racist chants in English Premier League stadiums, it was found that both racist chants targeting opposing players and players of the team that the respective fan groups support are a common sight on matchdays. More specifically, the study found antisemitic slurs targeting Jewish players, chants depicting Egyptian footballer Mohamed Salah (under contract with Liverpool FC) as a terrorist or chants playing on racial stereotypes when it comes to Black players. Similar insults can be found in the Vinicius Jr. causa, where racist stereotypes, the n-word or monkey noises are unfortunately common.

Implicit forms of racism

Media coverage and fan discourses

Obviously, football is not just watched in stadiums, but also on TV, providing football commentators with a stage and a large audience. Implicit and everyday forms of racisms are quite prevalent in this facet of professional football as well. For example, a study about football commentary in Spain found that international Spanish televised football picks up on racist stereotypes and in this way reinforces racial hierarchies. For example, the commentators tend to describe black players as physically superior or Muslim players as physically aggressive. Such depictions contribute to the construction of the "other" (so-called othering) and reproduce an "us" versus "them" frame in connection with national identities in professional sport. This gives football an exclusionary character. The fact that black players are relatively often associated with being gifted physically compared to White players is consistent with the findings of another study, which looked at discourses about race in the context of football among Polish youth. Here, the physicality discourses around Black players are prevalent as well. In a similar study among Spanish youth, these stereotypes about Black players being physically superior were also reinforced by most of the interviewees. Therefore, it seems likely that football discourses in the media reinforce the discourses of everyday football fans. These findings show that racism is not just a part of the stadium experience as explained above, but deeply ingrained in football culture and fan discourses as well.

Stacking

Research also discusses the extent to which racist knowledge shapes the way in which the various player positions are filled. The term "racial stacking" (or "racist stacking") used for this purpose attempts to point out that playing positions are not randomly distributed, but that racial stereotypes impact the decisions as to which players are assigned to which positions on the pitch. This has been researched, for example, with regard to American Football in the United States. Studies found that Black athletes are less likely to play in central positions involving tactical decision making, but are overrepresented in peripheral positions that are associated with physical strength. A study of the German Bundesliga in the 2020/21 season found that this phenomenon also occurs in European top-flight football: White players are overrepresented in positions typically associated with leadership qualities or tactical decision-making skills, such as that of defensive midfielder or goalkeeper, while Black players are underrepresented in these positions. Of 967 players from the first and second Bundesliga in the 2020/21 season, 20.6 percent were categorised as Black players. However, there was not a single Black goalkeeper. At 17.1 percent, Black players were slightly underrepresented in defensive midfield. On the other hand, Black players are significantly more likely to play in positions associated with physical ability, such as attacking wingers. According to the aforementioned study, 37 per cent of attacking outfield players in the first and second Bundesliga in the 2020/21 season were Black. Another study researching this phenomenon in the Premier and English football leagues yielded similar results, with players of colour being significantly more likely to be assigned to peripheral instead of central positions. Furthermore, the study does not just find that players are separated along this peripheral – central axis, but also that Black players are significantly more likely to play in positions that are associated with athleticism (for example, on the wing or as a full-back) rather than positions associated with organization or communication skills (centre-back, defensive midfielder).

Coaching and management positions

Racism cannot just be seen on the football pitch, in the stadium or on TV. Institutionalized forms of racism can also be found in the institutional bodies, decision-making and management structures and the respective coaching staffs – well-known examples include racist remarks by the former chairman of the supervisory board of the German football club Schalke 04, Clemens Tönnies, or racist insults by a youth coach at FC Bayern Munich's youth training centre.

The filling of management positions also hardly corresponds to the social realities and the diversity of origins of the population and testifies to exclusion mechanisms such as structural racism: In 2022, 87 percent of senior governance positions, 87.2 percent of senior operations positions and 90 percent of men’s first team coaches in European football were White men. Furthermore, just like men of colour, women, especially women belonging to an ethnic minority, were severely underrepresented in both men’s and women’s football. As of 2022, only 0.5 percent of senior governance positions, 0.3 percent of senior operations positions and 0.0 percent of senior coaching positions were held by women belonging to an ethnic minority. These numbers make it evident that ethnic minorities are severely underrepresented in football’s decision-making structures.

Racism in a European comparison

It is difficult to find statistics to compare different countries in relation to racism. Kick It Out, one of Europe’s biggest anti-racism charities in the context of football, reported a 65 percent increase in reported incidents of discrimination in Europe, between the 2021/22 and the 2022/23 season. However, Kick It Out themselves explain that this does not necessarily mean that racism in itself is on the rise, but that increased numbers can also result from the increased awareness and willingness to report incidents of racist discrimination and that there is no possibility to properly estimate the shadow numbers. Similarly, the most frequently found statistics are polls comparing public opinion on racism. While these statistics may not be adequate for comparing respective countries due to varying methodologies and the difficulties explained by Kick It Out, they definitely show that racism in the context of football is a problem all over Europe and is also perceived as such.

What measures can be taken to combat racism in European football?

In the past there have been numerous attempts at symbolic anti-racism campaigns, such as the European Football Association’s #NoToRacism, or the aforementioned campaigns by the German and Spanish football federations, ‘Football time is the best time against racism’ and #1voiceVSRACISM. However, with incidents of racist discrimination still being prevalent throughout Europe, other possible measures against racism must also be taken into consideration.

For example, can strict penalties be an effective measure against racism? Such penalties can be given out by the football federations themselves or by the individual clubs. Common examples of these penalties or sanctions include a stadium ban for anyone caught engaging in racist behaviour of any form. A strict penalty like this, if enforced consistently, would likely reduce racist incidents. Precedents have already been set, for example with the two Spanish giants FC Barcelona and Real Madrid banning their ultra-groups due to being entangled in the Neo-Nazi scene and subsequently showing Hitler salutes and swastikas in the stadiums. Additionally, the UK has implemented rules that make it easier to hand out stadium bans for misconduct in the aftermath of riots of football hooligans in the 1970s and 1980s, which have proven to be effective. Such penalties seem to be a logical way to combat explicit racism such as in stadiums or TV commentary. However, the great difficulty within this approach lies within finding out who exactly said what, given the hectic nature of football stadiums. Still, stricter penalties seem to be an effective measure that can be taken to combat racism, if only to set a norm and potentially scare spectators away from engaging in such behaviour.

While this first approach can be viewed as some sort of medicine targeting the immediate symptoms of racism in football, it is also necessary to find more sustainable, long-term solutions. For this, it makes sense to listen to those who are affected by racism. Real Madrid player Vinicius Jr. and FC Chelsea player Raheem Sterling, both of whom are among the most targeted players when it comes to racism in European football, have long been advocating for more representation in decision-making structures in European football, which are currently dominated by White men. Having more diverse representation in these positions would mean putting people in positions of power who have experienced racism themselves and therefore know of the importance of finding effective countermeasures. Furthermore, it would contribute to the mental well-being of discriminated players, as many of them seem to feel that the mostly White management structures do not take the issue seriously enough. However, many football organizations still approach this topic with a ‘colour-blind’ approach, meaning they mainly stress football is a race-less arena where players and coaches are just based on merit and judged according to their athletic performance, while there is no emphasis on acknowledging the long-standing existence of racism in European societies that also surfaces in football within this approach – leaving existing mechanisms of structural racism in football organisations untouched for the time being.

Alternative approaches such as targets or quotas would be conceivable in order to combat institutionalised practices of structural racist discrimination. This also seems useful given research in which coaches of colour argue that football hiring practices for different types of positions such as coaches or managers are sometimes more reliant on personal networks (reproducing existing power hierarchies) rather than actual qualifications. Incorporating more diverse representation into these institutional decision-making structures would probably also facilitate preventing implicit forms of racism, as it would lift people who might have experienced the issue first-hand into positions of power. Finally, the attempts to combat racism in the realm of football should be flanked by approaches such as anti-racist-education that target racism as a general social problem not just one that plays out in sports.

Conclusion

In summary, European football struggles severely with different manifestations of racism. Whether it is in the stadium, in everyday football talk or in management, structural racism comes to life in implicit and explicit forms in every facet of football. However, while the explicit manifestations of racism already get a lot of attention (and rightly so), the implicit versions of racism often get overlooked, for example when it comes to media coverage, research or concrete anti-racism measures. One sustainable approach would be to consequently question existing power structures and to introduce a higher degree of representation in decision-making. A sustainable approach would be to consistently challenge existing power structures and increase the level of representation in football's decision-making structures. Such measures could increase football’s inclusionary potential as an arena that brings people together.

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is studying Communication and Media at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. This article was written as part of a research internship on racism and football at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication.

The author would like to thank Externer Link: Palesa Mashigo and Externer Link: Jacco van Sterkenburg, who supervised the research internship, for their feedback and support in writing this article.