Activism In Football

Samar Devraj and Atharva Raje

Aman Mehta

Ever since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the English Premier League has been one of the main organizations spreading awareness about racial equality in football, and its #NoRoomForRacism campaign requires the player’s to take a knee in solidarity before every football match, and for the hashtag to be placed onto the sleeves of teams’ jerseys. While the Premier League has a huge audience, and the message has certainly been received by viewers, the question still remains as to whether the movement has had the impact it aims to create. Recent events, however, make football fans all over the world question the efficacy of the actions taken by large organisational bodies, including major football leagues.

 

For example, Manchester United’s underwhelming last-minute display against Everton saw centre half Axel Tuanzebe receive racial abuse from the United faithful. The selectively-directed blame towards Tuanzebe showcases the fact that the efforts taken by the Premier League in challenging systemic issues like racism haven’t been effective in bringing significant change.

Some of the racist comments under Axel Tuanzebe’s Instagram post

Moreover, the English FA’s match ban on Edinson Cavani for his ‘racist’ comments highlights their negligence towards cultural appropriation. The direct translation of Cavani’s statements in Spanish were poorly contextualised by the FA in order to victimise the forward. Cavani however, didn’t challenge the sanctions “out of respect for the FA” and football’s “fight against racism”. Such incidences gradually reveal the English FA’s inadequate understanding of the BLM movement on a holistic level.

Cavani’s reply to his friend on his Instagram story, which was wrongly interpreted as a racial slur

Notwithstanding the heavy campaigning towards their “Say No to Racism” initiative, the racial profiling of Istanbul Basaksehir’s assistant coach by UEFA match official Sebastian Coltescu during their group stage clash places the genuineness of these campaigns under a precarious spotlight. As we consider referees to be the ambassadors of their respective organisations, this event is an eye-opener towards the futility of the passive ideologies adopted by UEFA to tackle racism in the sport.

 

Furthermore, Arsenal’s deprived support towards Mesut Özil’s exemplary work signifies the ineffective incorporation of revolutionary movements in football. Being at the forefront of amplifying the oppressed voices of the Uyghur Muslims, Arsenal’s approach to distance themselves from Özil by excluding him from the team-sheet has made fans question the credibility backing this ‘footballing’ decision. Established business ties in China, however, lead us to contest Arsenal’s ‘apolitical’ stance as it insinuates the prioritisation of commercial success over humanitarian causes.

Mesut Özil using his platform to actively voice the struggles of Uighur Muslims, which received no support from his ex-club Arsenal 

While these examples display how the large footballing bodies have been unable to convey their activist messages effectively, all hope is not lost, and learning from the activist efforts of Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford can provide some serious insight into navigating a meaningful campaign. After the outbreak of the coronavirus, Rashford identified that delivering food to underprivileged children would be a serious issue, and acted upon this immediately, using charities and his social media following to create awareness about the problem and raise donations in order to feed the children. By June 2020, Rashford was able to raise over 20m and provide over 3 million free meals to children, establishing his campaign a huge success. 

Although, how was an individual able to do what entire football leagues couldn’t? While he didn’t have the financial strength of the Premier League, or the same ability to create awareness, Rashford knew what it was to be in the position of those children, as he had been in their shoes as a child himself, which gave his campaign the direction and success it had. However, a majority of the powerful members of the Premier League or Champions League board have not been in the position of oppressed minorities, and hence lack the ability to create an effective campaign fighting against a social issue on their behalf. 

The passive nature of the sporting organisations’ campaigning has further been brought to attention by football players voicing their opinions on social media or on the pitch. For example, Brentford F.C and the US women’s team have taken the stance to stop kneeling down as they “no longer believe this is having an impact” and want to focus on “work behind the scenes”, respectively signifying the need for active participation. Having recently classified taking a knee as being “degrading” and that the players should “stand tall”, Wilfried Zaha’s expressive opinions have successfully conveyed that the players representing marginalised communities are “tired” of the repetitive passive campaigning and believe that a paradigm shift towards active approaches is needed to eradicate the prevalence racism in the sport.

Wilfried Zaha’s opinions on taking a knee coincide with those of the US women’s team and Brentford F.C. 

To conclude, while their intentions are in the right space, the execution of large sporting organisations’ seemingly passive and repetitive campaigns, must change. Instead, using the opinions of members of oppressed communities in order to alter their campaigns to a more active, meaningful approach, is a more viable solution to end racism in the beautiful game.