Racism. Sexism. Homophobia. Three issues rarely broached by the medium of football - three issues at the core of society today. They say where society leads, football follows and right now that is certainly the case. Not for the positive either.
When England travelled to Bulgaria there was little surprise to be found in the edge that had grabbed hold of the fixture. An unashamed nation, once staunch allies and defenders of the Hitler regime - only one thing was going to happen. Bulgaria, under a ‘stadium ban’, still facilitated the fractured fanbase that led them to their ban in the first place.
A well documented soundbyte from Bulgaria’s (now former) coach boldly and unironically claimed that England has more of an issue with racism than Bulgaria does, something that tickled many.
This leads me to raise what I feel is an important question, however: is football by and large more racist, homophobic and sexist than wider society, or does it just mirror what’s happening day in, day out in society?
To do this properly, I felt it was best to research close to home and explore racism in society and football from around 2011 onwards, encapsulating the social media age and sports move towards engaging with social media on an increasingly frequent basis.
In 2010/2011, police in England and Wales statistics show that complaints regarding racism numbered 35,944, religion accounted for another 1618 cases, whilst in total, abuse including racism, sexism, homophobia and disability totalled up at 43,968 cases. By 2016 (significant as this was the year of the Brexit referendum), numbers have steadily increased, race accounted for 62,685 cases, religion skyrocketed to 5,949 instances whilst the overall number of incidents almost doubled to an eye watering 84,597.
That, sadly, is just the start.
Last year, racial incidents increased to 78,991, religion continued its upward trend of 8,566 cases whilst the England and Wales police figures topped out at 112,637 cases.
Society then has clearly became less tolerant and more racist.
So how does all of this compare to the beautiful game? Well, naturally, the numbers are vastly different, yet the trends make for similar and equally as stark reading.
In the 2018/19 season, racism across all forms of football (including grass roots, semi-pro and womens) saw a 43% increase in incidents, raising from 192 to 274 separate occurrences, whilst overall, discrimination incidents encountered a 32% increase.
The biggest percentage increase in isolation incidents (such as racism, sexism, etc.) was anti-Islamic and anti-Semitism based abuse, which saw cases nearly double from 35 in 2017/18 to 68 in 2018/19, an increase of 75%. Most shockingly of all these figures, was the one which suggested that 40% of these unsavoury incidents were committed by individuals aged 18 and below. Of the 520 complaints received last year, 208 were from U18’s.
Nature or nurture?
It isn’t just racism either - a true signifier that society as a whole is becoming less tolerant, both in and outside of football is that in these figures, 22% of complaints were homophobic in nature. All in all, in a single season football has seen a 12% rise in reports. In 2012/13, Kick It Out received less than 100 complaints, 77 to be precise.
Statistics, of course, can be misleading and there isn’t anything to suggest that these negative statistics are purely just an indication of a less tolerant society. To give things balance we must also factor in a huge selection of variables. Thanks to social media, advertising and the tireless work on anti-discrimination charities, society is far more aware of such behaviour and its reporting of such. Online capabilities now also allow us to report quickly, easily and anonymously in comparison to 2011.
It can be argued then, that these figures can both indicate an increase in incidents and an increase in the reporting of them. Another key factor lies in the victims, with a new generation of fans and players being more confident and courageous in their ability and willingness to stand up against abuse, this is in stark contrast to their predecessors who regularly talk about how they “just got on with it.”
One thing these statistics don’t do is show a decline in tendencies.
The feeling then is that football is becoming increasingly racist and overall less tolerant both at home and abroad, with many cases to highlight either the ignorance or complete lack of humanity football fans, bodies and boards have relating to these issues.
A prime example of this was Romelu Lukaku’s run in with racist fans and commentators in Italy, a country known for its racist tendencies, more recently involving players such as Moise Kean and Italian international Mario Balotelli. The former was informed in a press conference, by his captain no less, that the abuse was of his own cause. Add to that the unsavoury scenes in Bulgaria, a stadium clad in Nazi imagery and propaganda, a football league known for its neo-Nazi-esque hooliganism and it is no surprise to see black English footballers be abused. Evidently then, this problem purely isn’t just England’s.
Back in blighty, both in society and football there has been many a case drawn out in the public forum - recently a ‘gentleman’ (I use that term VERY loosely) from Sunderland found himself at Her Majesty’s pleasure due to a speight of racially aggravated tirades and abuse.
What baring does this have? Its that this kind of behaviour has emerged in football too. Take for instance the infamous Chelsea fan, who found himself permanently banned from Stamford Bridge thanks to some savvy lip reading. He was also investigated by police on the matter; no charges were subsequently brought.
Another case in the long list of abuse stars such as Raheem Sterling face. Just this weekend racism reared its ugly head again, this time in the FA Cup proper - Haringey Borough keeper Valery Pajetat was verbally abused, spat at and had bottles thrown at him; all of this merely hours after an FA video for a further campaign against racism was released.
This time, Haringey and their opponents Yeovil walked off the field in solidarity with their keeper - a minority of fans bringing shame to Yeovil. It’s also safe to assume that this won't be the last instance of teams walking off in protest and solidarity.
It's not just fans either - they’re just a portion of the abuse. The statistics referenced earlier included all forms and levels of the game. Nobody is exempt.
Most recently Peter Beardsley has been involved in a racism-based saga, accused and subsequently found guilty of using racist language to a series of Newcastle youth players. Beardsley has found himself suspended from football for seven months, whilst Beardsley himself has always maintained his innocence. It is worth noting, Beardsley was found by an FA panel to be guilty of using racist language but not of being a racist.
Even in the women’s game, racism has manifested itself onto the pitch.
Earlier this year, former Sheffield United player Sophie Jones was found guilty of racism on the field of play, accused of making monkey noises towards a fellow professional. Jones was banned for five games but ultimately had her contract terminated by Sheffield United - a situation that has forced Jones into an early retirement from the game. She has always maintained her innocence.
It’s abundantly clear that football is following society and has been a reflection for quite some time. Hastened by faceless social media accounts and by a mob rule mantra, it is becoming an epidemic across all fronts.
My burning question, however, is why should football merely reflect society? Why can football not set a standard, stand out from the crowd and be pioneers in social change?
The cynic in me suggests that maybe it’s all financially driven. Football, especially elite level, is a money-making tool the likes the world has very rarely seen, advertising is sold for millions, rights to show these games in the billions.
It stands to reason that if football was to admit its growing problem with racism, fewer companies would associate themselves with the products on offer and more crucially than that, they’ll want to pay less for a ‘flawed’ product. Another angle is that maybe it's not football’s job to solve racism and that governments and society as a whole should take more responsibility in the fight against discrimination. For me, that doesn’t sit right.
Whilst football is making efforts, it isn’t making near enough of a concerted one.
So far, current rulings and sanctions against teams, both national and club, have had little to no effect. Countries where racism is more deeply ingrained in society don’t see stadium closures and ‘behind closed doors’ games a deterrent, merely just part and parcel of what they do and regularly, another rule to be flagrant in their defiance of.
UEFA’s current model, an effectual three strike rule, is also an affront to the growing problem of racism in stadiums. Whilst being a step in the right direction, the notion that racism needs to be reported (note, not just happen) three times for any considerable action to be taken is not near serious enough. It should be once and once only.
It’s of my firm personal belief that it is the clubs and countries that should be punished first and foremost. Whilst this creates victims of both the players and the fans who don’t commit such vile acts, maybe the deterrent of having football removed from them, or being detrimental to their team in a more meaningful manner than a closed stadium.
So what can we do about it? As fans, not much, but there is a difference to be made.
Whilst we can't stop people being racist, we can make them feel uncomfortable and unwanted. The scene of England fans, reverent in their support, defiant in the face of racism was a sight to behold and more toward, should be the scene which greets both racism and any other form of discrimination in our sport.
As fans we have to be at the forefront of this - campaigns such as Kick It Out receive but a pittance in comparison to the multi-billion pound industry of the British game. 2018 figures suggest Kick It Out receive just 0.01% of the FA’s budget.
How can such a huge issue be so criminally under funded?
As laid out, society and football find themselves in a hand in glove scenario. Whilst we look for answers inside of football the real issue itself won’t be solved until the issue is also tackled outside of the stadiums and pitches. Football can clearly form a prompt, but it can’t fight a battle much wider than itself, though it can find a stance of which wider campaigns can mimic and use to tackle the issues faced. For me, everyone can do better.
But what if society doesn’t move forward? That is a concern that we are all faced with but one we must ensure doesn’t happen. If kids racially abusing each other, Raheem Sterling being targeted by the media or watching your black stars abused as they represent your country isn’t enough, then I’m not sure anything will be.
So I’ll leave you with the most damning indictment I can find - it is this, from England manager Gareth Southgate (on racism from the stands v Bulgaria):
Because of their experiences in our own country, they are hardened to racism.
I don’t know what that says about our society but that’s the reality.