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INSIGHT: VAR on Sports Leadership - Racism in Football | Part One

Sport for Peace and Development Practitioner and equitysport contributor, Judith Macharia takes a deep dive into racism in global football, with a particular emphasis on the scourge of racial discrimination outside of the Global North. Part one sets the scene...

Racism is not a new phenomenon in the world today, neither is it in sports. Sports leadership has played different roles in addressing the issue with some of them reinforcing it even though unintentional. Understanding that true leadership should serve as an example, and sport as a unifying tool, sports leadership have the potential to transform the narrative not just in sports but in the society as well.

In 2014, Carlo Tavecchi made a racist slur during the Italian federation presidency election campaigns by referencing "eating bananas" while referring to foreign players. He went ahead to win the election that year but was later banned by UEFA for six months and asked to "organise a special event to increase awareness against racism in Italy". However, he continued to serve as the president after the organisation’s internal prosecutor abandoned investigations. This act by the leadership and the voting delegation reinforces racist attitudes. This was evident in 2019 when Serie A launched their 'No To Racism' Campaign that included poster of three monkeys with painted faces the league leadership stated the campaign was meant to deliver the message, ‘we are all monkeys as humans.’ The insensitive and tone-deaf approach once again reflects the sport's antiquated views on racism and its indifference in understanding it, and seeking deliberate ways to address it.

Similarly, in 2018, the West Ham Chief Scout, Tony Henry was fired for his racist comments on African players. He described them as “difficult,” “with bad attitude,” and “cause mayhem.” Upon inquiry on whether his view was discriminatory, he asked, 'In what way?' Nonetheless, the West Ham board condemned the actions and issued a directive that as part of their new mandatory training and workforce plan, the staff would be required to attend equality, diversity and unconscious-bias training. The lack of understanding by key leaders of extent of micro-aggressors to create the perfect conditions for racism in football to flourish is daunting.

In December 2020, during Group H Champions League match between Paris Saint-Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir, it was alleged that the fourth official, Sebastian Coltescu, had racially abused the Turkish club's assistant coach, Pierre Webo, which forced match restart. UEFA later opened proceedings against Coltescu and second official Octavian Sovre on this but only looked into "a potential violation of Article 11 of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations, which relates to the "general principles of conduct,” during a game including "insulting or otherwise violating the basic rules of decent conduct." While racism is under a different section of the rules, which UEFA gave no hearing date.

The whole matter stimulated a debate in Turkey over their own sporting culture and on racism. According to a sports lawyer, Mert Yasar, racist incidents have been the norm, with most of the perpetrators walking freely as leadership fails to impose penalties or launch inquiries. The football team of Diyarbakir City, a region with a Kurdish-majority, has gradually become the target of these hostilities especially since the club’s renaming to Amedspor in 2014, which translates to Diyarbakir in Kurdish. During games, some fans would yell “Kurds out.” In some cases, Kurdish supporters would be barred from attending games even if they support the team.

In another incident in Turkey, a football commentator, Emre Bol, said that Galatasaray’s Senegalese star, Mbaye Diagne, was eating crocodile in Senegal before he went to Turkey and became a footballer. The leadership at Galatasaray responded by taking immediate legal action against Bol. However, as stories of fans waving bananas during games continue to make headlines, the football leadership in the country has not taken a stance or action against the culprits.

In 2015, Egyptian footballer Ahmed Almerghani was victim to racist attack by Zamalek club President, Mortada Mansour, who referred to him as a servant and a doorman. This was in reference to Almerghani’s race as a Nubian, who are darker-skinned, marginalized minority who traditionally had lower-paying jobs as servants. Fast forward to December 2020, 14 people were arrested for racist attack against a top Zamalek player, Mohamed Abdel Razek, also of Nubian descent. He had encountered racist attacks before, which forced him to quit international football. The Zamalek leadership, led by President Mortada Mansour, spoke against the act stated that they would file a lawsuit against the culprits. While the President has gone ahead to file a formal complaint and pursue justice for Abdel, he contributed to the problem through his remarks years back.

In another context, Israeli based club, Beitar, had never recruited any Arab player in the past until its ownership changed. Under the ownership of Russian-Israeli, Arcadi Gaydamak, the club signed two Chechen players, thus attracting the ire of the club’s staunch fans, who have, for a longtime, opposed the signing of Muslim or Arab players to the team with some of them holding out “Beitar Pure Forever,” banners during games. This has stirred a huge national debate on racism in the Israeli society, with the anti-Arab and racist chants from the fans reflecting the severity of the situation.

While the majority of the racist encounters are experienced in the Global North, the trend ensues in the Global South too. In July 2020, coach Luc Eymael, formerly of Yanga SC, made racist remarks towards the fans and Tanzanian culture when he compared the country's fans to monkeys and expressed his disgust towards the nation. In response, the Yanga leadership fired him immediately, and the Tanzania Football Federation (TFF) also banned him from coaching activities in the country. However, even after his remarks, Luc was still appointed as the head coach for Premier Soccer League (PSL) side, Chippa United. In solidarity against racism, the South African Football Association (SAFA), leading body of football in South Africa, banned him from working in the country and asked the home affairs department to deny him a work permit. As expected, Chippa later withdrew the appointment. The Federation’s reaction exemplified the kind of leadership that maintains the pride and value of African society.

African football seems to have developed the same pattern as its national economies, by always looking to the West despite the vast resources and human talent, when it comes to hiring coaches. While, competency and qualifications are key contributing factors, the sidelining of local coaches remains a sad reality. Egypt, which is said to be the most successful football team in the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) history, having won it seven times, has mainly been led by local coaches -take their recent three consecutive wins under Hassan Shehata.

During the 2010 World Cup, out of the six African countries present, only Algeria had a local coach. Nigeria appointed Swedish national, Lars Lagerback, who had just failed to qualify his country, after sacking a local coach, Shaibu Amodu, who had helped the team to qualify. Ivory Coast also fired François Zahoui and replaced him with Sabri Lamouchi despite having not conceded a single goal at the previous tournament under Zahoui. Ghana, which maintained the local coach from the qualifying rounds, was the only African team that made it past the group stages only to be knocked out through the controversial Suarez goal.

This has been replicated at club level with examples of top clubs like Betking Premier League side, Gor Mahia FC in Kenya, prioritising the recruitment of foreign based coaches. Most recently, in late 2020, Gor Mahia hired Roberto Oliveira, and was released barely three months after joining club. The Brazilian was dismissed after he was declared unqualified to participate in CAF Tournaments. They later appointed Pamzo Omollo formerly of Posta Rangers, on interim basis. Noteworthy, the new head coach recorded important wins for the team despite the short notice. However, he was still not picked for the head coach job as the team hired a Portuguese national, Carlos Pinto.

Part two analysing some of the current measures to tackle racism in global football will be released next week.


Judith Macharia is a Sport for Peace and Development Practitioner, MD of the RO Sports Academy in Kenya and a contributor and advisor to equitysport.

equitysport is a UK-registered charity (1189559) that exists to promote and advance equality, diversity and equal opportunity in and through global sport. Through free-form development, education programmes and targeted advocacy the charity seeks an inclusive and equitable sporting ecosystem that lives up to the true values of sport.

Notes to Editors

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