Blacked out

Race was a simmering issue in the European Championships this past month with some teams choosing to adopt the practice of taking the knee ahead of matches to send out a message of racial solidarity and others not. But the pitch is not the hotbed of racism in the European footballing industry. That’s changed over the past 25 years with footballers from West and North Africa, and the Caribbean to South Korea, Turkey and even Bangladesh increasingly taking to the field in the colours of storied clubs or national teams. You only have to look at the French, Belgian, English, Austria, Dutch P.....
Race was a simmering issue in the European Championships this past month with some teams choosing to adopt the practice of taking the knee ahead of matches to send out a message of racial solidarity and others not. But the pitch is not the hotbed of racism in the European footballing industry. That’s changed over the past 25 years with footballers from West and North Africa, and the Caribbean to South Korea, Turkey and even Bangladesh increasingly taking to the field in the colours of storied clubs or national teams. You only have to look at the French, Belgian, English, Austria, Dutch Portuguese and German national teams at the European  Championships to spot the trend.

Look past the pitch and players’ bench to the management teams — coaches, assistant coaches and so on — and it’s a different story. The near-uniform white ethnic composition would have been Hitler’s dream. That is why scenes such as Belgium coach Roberto Martinez bending his ear to advice from his assistant coach, the insanely talented French striker Thierry Henry, or England manager Gareth Southgate deep in tactical talk with assistant coach and industrious former left back Chris Powell were striking. Both Henry and Powell are of West Indian descent.

This anomaly reflects the hidden racism in the institutions of European football.

Many of these players of non-European ethnicity become stars, worshipped by fans of all colours around the world. Once their playing days are over, most of them fade from pu­blic memory even as their white te­am-mates re-emerge as managers, coaches, assistant coaches and expert commentators. The TV studios have no­ticeably been doing their bit to brid­ge the ethnic gap in recent years so that the studio discussions and analyses are a lot more colourful in every way.  

Less so club managements. As football journalist Maher Mezahi pointed out, “Across the first divisions of England, Spain, Germany, France and Italy, there are no African managers.” He means managers of African nationality. But even non-ethnic European managers are hard to find in these leagues. Sure, we have Real Madrid appoint their divinely gifted star, the Algerian origin Frenchman Zinedine Zidane as manager but that’s as much a function of his abilities as the fact that he has worked at downplaying his north African roots.  

Talent, as we know, has no colour so the big-money European footballing leagues teams cannot afford to be picky about race when it comes to selecting the best players. In management, wins and trophies count but it is possible to gloss over the correlation between management, a far less specific business, and race. There are no overall numbers for the continental leagues but the English Premier League, the richest of them, offers a handy gauge of embedded racism: Black footballers account for 30 per cent of the players but only one per cent of club managements, according to Christian Unguhe and Sine Agergard , writing in The Conversation.

This points to a clear policy of exclusion because the English Football Association has actually tried to tackle the problem since 2016. In that year, it introduced a rule adapted from the US National Football League that made it compulsory for teams to interview at least one ethnic-minority candidate for a first team managerial or coaching role. As a 2019 study of this rule from Greenwich University glumly observed, “the under-representation problem is simply dire and not improving”. 

At least part of the problem, Mehazi said, is that the Confederation of African Football has made no attempt to ensure that its managerial certificates are recognised by UEFA, which governs European football. But this can be easily remedied by UEFA itself, if it wanted to. It was okay about bending citizenship rules to accommodate African players in clubs and national teams but does not seem to display the same ardour when it comes to utilising their management abilities. The problem is a circular one: Football club boardrooms remain closed user groups of white businesspeople, and as the English FA’s failed effort shows, likely to remain that way.  

Luckily, times are a’changin’. Both Henry and Powell came into national coaching roles after coaching French and English clubs. The French star Patrick Vieira, of Trinidadian origin, has just been appointed manager of English Premier League club Crystal Palace.  Some lesser known players are making modest waves in the Netherlands and France. And there’s the sterling example of former Nigeria goalkeeper Ndubuisi Egbo, who guided K F Tirana, the Albanian club for which he played, to a league title and UEFA Champions League qualification in 2020. Euro 2024 will show if European football has crossed the colour bar for real.




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GERMAN NATIONAL FOOTBALL TEAM

RACISM

EUROPE

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ZINEDINE ZIDANE

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