Football resumed in some of Europe’s biggest leagues in the time of sickness, death and a significant pushback against racism. Deaths from the novel coronavirus reached 4.6 lakh on Saturday which had 16 games across the Premiership, La Liga and Bundesliga. In many of those games health workers were lauded, virus victims remembered along with a 46-year-old black man, George Floyd, 26 days after his sudden death in USA from police brutality.
Like playing during a pandemic, the widespread call for racial justice across football’s firmament - or at least in its most watched competitions - is a first. Such has been the global solidarity for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement after Floyd’s death that even powerful sports bodies have changed stance. So far, they had said sport and politics don’t mix. It didn’t matter that politicians have long been part of sports administrations - look no further than India’s Praful Patel and Pakistan’s Faisal Saleh Hayat helming national football federations. Political protests by players though were no-go areas.
That changed over the past month. Acknowledging BLM, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) has said it will soften rules and the United States Soccer Federation has done a U-turn on its three-year rule prohibiting athletes from kneeling during the national anthem. Fifa president Gianni Infantino has even praised the BLM movement.
In the Premier League, players took a knee and wore shirts that had ‘Black Lives Matter’ where their names would be. Through campaigns such as ‘Kick It Out’ there have been attempts to deal with racism in football in Britain since 1993 but this was unprecedented. Here was Fifa, UEFA and the Premier League encouraging players supportive of the movement. In the US, gridiron footballer Colin Kaepernick’s career may be revived four years after he took a political stand and leagues are saying they are okay with athletes keen on similar protests.
SHIFT IN PERCEPTION
So are these steps populist or symbolic? They could be either or both but even then it needs to be noted that public pressure can bring meaningful change to the discourse. As Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford showed when he forced an about-turn on food vouchers for poor children from the Boris Johnson-led Conservative government in the UK, athletes and fans can get together to hold an establishment accountable.
For football, and many other sports, this is an opportunity to improve the conversation around racism and bigotry. When Turkish-origin Mesut Ozil said he was a victim of racism in Germany, there was little support from the national federation, current and former players, or the public. Oezil was targeted ahead of the 2018 World Cup for posing with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan when diplomatic relations between Germany and Turkey had frayed. When Bundesliga resumed last month, Germany embraced public support for BLM by players.
In England, Liverpool posted a picture on June 1 where the club’s players were seen taking a knee around the Anfield centre-circle during training. The gesture was soon adopted by other clubs and introduced on matchdays. Even though Liverpool have a different manager and almost an entirely different first team from 2011-12, it is worth remembering that during that season, the club threw its weight behind Luis Suarez when he was found guilty of racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.
The Liverpool players even wore shirts in support of Suarez at the time. Liverpool have never publicly apologised for that although Evra did reveal that he recently received an email from club chairman Tom Werner who acknowledged the Reds’ mistake and apologised.
English football has also seen little progress in terms of black representation in managerial positions or in boardrooms and it is perhaps time to go a few steps ahead of just symbolic support for an anti-racism campaign. As Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling recently said: “There’s something like 500 players in the Premier League and a third of them are black and we have no representation of us in the hierarchy, no representation of us in the coaching staffs. There’s not a lot of faces that we can relate to and have conversations with.”
For allegations of racism football bodies in Europe, including UEFA, have been notorious in letting many stakeholders get away with a tap on the wrist. Racist chanting from the stands remains prevalent even in top leagues like Italy’s Serie A. Perhaps, this is European football’s chance to course-correct. BLM is changing the rules of the game and the conversation around racism and political protests.
It can also be a lesson for countries where dissent by athletes is frowned upon. In India, where nothing stops athletes from jingoism or bigotry –military caps by the India cricket team in an international match, Islamophobic tweets by a famous wrestler or a tweet by an Olympic medal-winning wrestler threatening ‘terrible consequences’ on those consuming beef are but a few examples – there is little tolerance for those speaking out against injustice.
When former India cricketer Irfan Pathan recently expressed his views on social injustice in India, it was met with radio silence from colleagues and the cricket fraternity at large. Former West Indies captain Darren Sammy’s allegations of teammates in the Indian Premier League using a racial slur received somewhat similar treatment.