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How Has Football Tackled Racism?

"Racism is the most serious problem in football today," says former player and now anti-racism campaigner Elliot Paul. "What we need is a solid declaration against racism in sport. Because equal opportunity is not a privilege; it's a human right." The overwhelming majority of football people are on board with this important message. And our unity against racism has led to amazing things on and off the pitch, proving there is more that unites us than divides us. But plenty of work is still needed. In fact, some commentators believe we're only just beginning to tackle the root causes of racism in football. So here's a look at how football has tackled racism so far and what more can be done to kick it out of the game forever.

Oct 2, 2023
  • Education
How Has Football Tackled Racism?

Celebrating black sporting achievements off the field

Set up in 2008, the Football Black List is an annual award in the UK that highlights black professionals who positively influence society. This year's list featured big-name stars like Marcus Rashford and Ivan Toney. It also honoured black coaches and managers, prominent media personalities such as Alex Scott, and the 'ordinary' people running education and community initiatives, such as 'Show Racism the Red Card' founder Daniel Mills.

Leon Mann, the co-founder of the Football Black List, says, "Black excellence in football is regularly talked about on the pitch - and we want to help highlight the contribution of black leaders off the field in the sport, too. This year's list of influential game-changers is a snapshot of the contribution black communities are making to football."

Smashing the stereotypes

Lazy. Bad attitude. Great athlete, but no ‘footballing brain’. These were just a few of the stereotypes levelled at the first black players breaking through into the professional game during the 70s and 80s. And it wasn't just disgruntled 'fans' spreading these discriminatory tropes. It was also some coaches, managers, and chairman. Today, the vast majority of fans and footballing professionals find such ideas abhorrent. And the off-field work of players such as Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling has helped create a fairer and more positive image of modern-day black footballers.

However, unconscious bias still has a powerful effect on how black players are perceived. A study by the Danish firm RunRepeat in association with the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) concluded players with darker skin tones were "significantly" more likely to be "reduced to their physical characteristics or athletic ability." At the same time, those with lighter skin tones were more likely to be praised for their intelligence and work ethic.

Beyond race in football?

Can we ever move past race? Can we have honest discussions without offending each other? Liverpool and England legend John Barnes hopes so. Barnes, who experienced the worst examples of racism in football during the 1980s, offers a counterpoint to the above issue. He shares his vision of a post-racial world in his book, The Uncomfortable Truth About Racism. Barnes addresses the issue surrounding the stereotypical commentary of black footballers, writing that there shouldn't be anything wrong with referring to the physical qualities of black players.

"If you want equality, you have to be treated equally. I completely understand the essence of slavery and going back historically - this is what my book actually talks about, colonialism and slavery, and the legacy of all that," says Barnes. "But look at Wolves winger Adama Traore. He is powerful, and there is nothing wrong with saying he's powerful if he runs past you and pushes you out of the way. You can also add intelligence, but if you don't have to, why do you feel the need to overcompensate for the fact that he's a powerful black man? There's nothing wrong with being a powerful black man. As black people, we don't need to be pandered to. We just want to be seen and treated on our individual merits."

Kicking out racism

In 1991 the Football Offences Act made "indecent or racialist chanting" a criminal offence. It was a landmark step in recognizing and tackling racism in football. But attitudes don't change overnight. There was still widespread racist abuse on terraces during the 90s and a climate of fear prevailed among supporters from ethnic minorities and those living near football grounds.

So realizing that more needed to be done, Paira Powar and Ben Tegg decided to form the anti-racist campaign group Kick it Out. The pair didn't receive much support from senior FA members at the time, which was another clear sign that change was needed. But fast forward almost 30 years late, and Kick it Out is one of the most successful anti-racist organizations in sport. It's been fully embraced at all levels of the game and has many high-profile supporters and patrons. Kick it Out's recent success stories include encouraging the FA to introduce a three-year plan to become more diverse. The FA now aims to have 20% of its coaches from black or minority ethnic backgrounds by the year 2021.

Taking the knee

For many, the decision to take the knee before domestic and international games is an important symbol of unity against racism. In fact, 58% of surveyed fans think taking the knee is "very important" in tackling racism. But some people weren’t so keen on the idea. A handful of UK and US politicians called it divisive and gesture politics, while a minority of fans have booed and jeered the gesture. Thankfully, these were drowned about by applause from the rest of the crowd during later games.

Combating online hate

Two years ago, several big-name footballers and pundits took part in a campaign called '#Enough'. It was a 24-hour social media boycott aimed at raising awareness of online hate and racist abuse. But little (if anything) has changed. Several of England's black players were racially abused online after their 2020 European Championship final loss. And for black players such as Troy Deeney, receiving hate-filled messages via Twitter and Instagram is part of daily life. "I get up to 40 racist messages a week," said Deeney in an interview with Sky Sports News. "You can talk about my football as much as you want. I just don't understand why you have to talk about the colour of my skin or try to make me feel less for being an individual of colour."

Now, like many others in and outside the game, Deeney believes social media companies can no longer ignore the sheer volume of cases. As such, he's fully behind new plans for groundbreaking online harms legislation. The new laws, which could come into effect later this year, would make tech companies legally responsible for the online safety of their users. They will also be accountable to a regulator over abusive content. Failure to combat hate on their platforms could lead to massive fines of up to 10% of global turnover and even criminal sanctions for senior executives.

Football unites, racism divides. And as long as we keep working together, we can continue to show that racism has no place in the game we all love.

The Football Business Academy

If you want to tackle racism in football and make the game better for everyone, enrolling in The Football Business Academy (FBA) is a great place to start. The FBA is an ambitious institution offering postgraduate courses tailor-made to help you break into and shape the football industry.

The FBA's Professional Master in Football Business is a 12-month course combining classroom-based and online learning with practical assessments, including a guaranteed placement with a leading football club or organization. All classes are taught in English. By the end of the program, you'll have an in-depth knowledge of the football industry, including what needs to be done to keep the game moving in the right direction for all fans. It's the ideal program for anyone interested in a career in, for example, marketing, public relations, fan engagement, community outreach, or footballing governance -- all fields that are tackling the problem of racism in football.

Zarah Shah graduated on The FBA’s most recent class, in Lisbon this summer. With her diverse background and experiences, as well as her lifelong passion for football, she’s the perfect person to assess how football has tackled racism and the areas in which we still need to do more.

She grew up in Ireland, with a Pakistani father, and has lived in India and Dubai, as well as representing Pakistan at football. "When I grew up, Ireland was a very white society," she says. "I was the only brown girl in my school. I went to a German school, so there were other nationalities there, so maybe that’s why I felt so included. Football was one of those things that made me feel included, so that’s another reason why I held onto that so much. I could go through whatever, but on the pitch it’s just football. I think that’s what football should be and should represent. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re coming from. It’s something that just sparks an instant connection that you can just chat about. It breaks all borders and barriers, and you can connect on that."

"[Racism] exists and has been existing from way back when football began," she adds. "They never allowed Black people to play back in the 1900s, but it’s come a long way from then to now. It’s a society problem, but football can help tackle that and spread that into the wider society and lead by example. The fact that people are being made more aware and it seems like they’re trying to tackle it more, you can report it, police can look into it, clubs can be fined, and fans can be banned. It’s something that’s been embedded and it’s going to take a very long time to change culture. Something has to start from a grassroots level and have a society change."

"So many people say you shouldn’t mix sports and political views, but when you have a platform, and you have a voice, and you’re going through that kind of thing yourself, you have to be able to use what you can to create awareness, and act on it. How else are people going to know? Then it’s highlighted and you start to think about whether you’ve faced it, or whether you’re a racist person and you don’t even understand that about yourself. It forces you to think about opens up some food for thought. It’s been slow coming, but I feel like there’s stuff being highlighted now, in the right ways. At least people are taking notice."

And, with her football ability, becoming joint valedictorian through academic merit of the most recent FBA graduating class, and her plans to work in sports journalism and eventually become a sporting director of a club, Zarah is one of those passionate people making a difference in football.

She was attracted to The FBA as it has a specific focus on football and the curriculum could be fit around her schedule. "I’ve always wanted to work in football," she explains. "I’ve been distracted by other things, but my heart has always been in football, that’s the only thing that’s given me real happiness. Football was the only thing that always made me feel connected and brought me back to life. Playing, watching, supporting, just talking about it, that was literally everything for me.”

“I came across The FBA. I spoke for an hour to the admissions counselor, and it sounded like everything I wanted. It’s six months online, so I could stay in Dubai, then take the three-month placement, and this would help me figure out which area I’m interested in. I applied for that. And there’s a scholarship for women, where they give you 50% off.”

Brian Wesaala, who runs the Football Foundation for Africa, is another FBA graduate perfectly positioned to speak about race relations in football across the globe. He played football in Nairobi, Kenya, as well as working in IT. He moved to Geneva, Switzerland, in 2009 and continued to play football, before deciding to pursue it as a career too. In 2018, he came across The FBA and it was “perfect timing.”

“Football is one of those platforms where [racism] is magnified,” he asserts. “Sports, particularly football, can play a role in reducing these kinds of incidents, especially from concrete measures taken to address what causes systemic racism. For example, making sure there’s equal access to opportunities, not only in playing but also in the management of the game.”

“Players that move to Europe aren’t very well exposed or exposed to racism, and don’t know how to react. If you improve the quality of opportunities in Africa, Africans won’t have to move out of desperation. They can move out of choice, and then they can speak up about how they should be treated and respected, just like any other player.”

Meanwhile, FBA graduate Ayer Leonardo S. de Souza is putting his education on The FBA's Professional Master to good use in promoting equality in society in his coaching of a youth club playing in the MLS Next, the league for Major League Soccer academies throughout the USA.

He says The FBA's Master in Football Business is “very practical” and “very hands on deck”, with “a lot of practical interactions and real life scenarios, which felt very interesting.” He had the chance to have interactions with pros he grew up watching, and to see stadiums he had always dreamed of visiting. It was “very impactful for my life and my career.”

His club have taken “several actions to tackle racism, discrimiation, and implicit bias that’s present in the youth sport.” They have a list of banned phrases, both in English and Spanish. The list was shared with players, as well as their families. Coaches, directors, and club leadership have also gone through implicit bias and diversity training and Ayer’s club has a diversity committee.

“It takes all of us to understand, it takes all of us to play that empathy, it takes all of us to educate ourselves, and be the generation who’s going to cut it, so it doesn’t pass to further generations,” he explains. “Every society that has a history of slavery, particularly the Americas, and coming from Brazil where we were the last country to abolish’s present. We all must be aware, we all must be educated on it.”

“What soccer allows is a common space and a common ground. It’s the most popular sport on the planet. We can be from different races, but we have a common connection. What soccer allows is that point of contact that sometimes gets missed. Once you’re rooting for the same team, or you’re behind the same cause, it’s a point of unity that helps you to leave that first perception behind.”

FBA Candidates learn from and engage with some of the best in the business. FBA's Professors and Lecturers have years of practical industry experience. They'll share the realities, challenges, and needs of today's football industry. They also use their industry connections to invite guest speakers, giving you an even deeper insight into what it takes to be a successful football executive. Previous guest speakers include former Manchester United striker Louis Saha and sports marketing guru Simon Chadwick.

For more information on how to apply, visit

Article written in association with The Football Business Academy.

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Ashley Murphy


After graduating with a degree in English literature and creative writing, Ashley worked as a bartender, insurance broker, and teacher. He became a full-time freelance writer in 2016. He lives and writes in Manchester, England.