Racism and football-when will it end?

Published 20th November 2018

Only 4 months ago France celebrated its World Cup victory and the well intentioned, often jocular, yet deeply political comments about the “6th African team” winning became a hot topic. It conjured discussions about racism, origins and integration and the recent racial profiling scandal at top flight French football club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) has reignited this discourse.

PSG is one of France’s biggest football clubs having won the French league (Ligue 1) 7 times and the Coupe de France a record 12 times. PSG has the sixth-highest revenue in the footballing world with an annual revenue of €486.2m, to boot they are the world’s eleventh most valuable football club, worth €775m.

French investigative website, Mediapart, uncovered that the Club’s Youth Academy scouts have been illegally racially profiling young players and discarding them on the basis of their skin colour for the past 5 years. The scouts were using forms containing certain criteria including whether the player was “French, North African, black African or West Indian.”

PSG’s management team confirmed “that forms with illegal content were used between 2013 and 2018” but they remain adamant that this was done solely by the erstwhile head of scouting, Marc Westerloppe and that they had no actual knowledge of this discriminatory practice or of the forms themselves. In addition to the forms, Marc Westerloppe was reportedly recorded complaining about the number of West Indians and Africans in Paris.

Under French law the collection of data related to race, ethnicity or religion is strictly prohibited and racial profiling is punishable by up to five years in prison and a 300,000 euro fine. The French League for Human Rights has filed a lawsuit against the Club.

This is not the first time that allegations of racism have surfaced in the world of French football. In 2011, in yet another scandal uncovered by Mediapart, former national coach Laurent Blanc was recorded discussing quotas to limit the number of players with African origins in youth academies. Ideas included ensuring that 70 percent of the players were white.

A transcript of his conversations records him uttering his preference for players with “our culture, our history”. Blanc claimed to have been quoted out of context and was eventually cleared of any wrong doing but the scandal left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. The notion of introducing such quotas is tragically myopic and almost ironic given that both the French teams that have won the World Cup (1998 and 2018 respectively) were highly diverse and included a number of players with an immigration background.

Racism in French football is not just at the recruitment level but football fans in French stadiums have been amongst some of the chief instigators of discriminatory behaviour.

In 2007, Boubacar Kebe, a Burkinabé-Malian player with French citizenship was racially abused by fans of the French club Bastia. The abuse escalated the following year in 2008 when Bastia fans brought and displayed a racist banner targeting Kebe yet again. Ligue 1 deducted two log points from the club. In January 2017, Italian striker, Mario Balotelli, whose parents both come from Ghana, was also subjected to racial abuse by Bastia fans who made monkey sounds whenever he touched the ball.

Amateur players say the racism at that level is worse than that of the professional level. Kerfalla Sissoko a 25-year-old amateur player from Guinea was violently beaten in May this year after being subject to verbal racial abuse during a match in Mackenheim, France. During the match he and some of his black team mates were verbally abused by fans and opposing players. When a fight broke out between players on the pitch, he tried to return to the locker rooms but was prevented by players and fans, including one brandishing a knife. He was badly beaten and suffered a broken cheekbone.

Central to the issue is blind and unflinching intolerance to diversity, but former French national defender, Lilian Thuram, also thinks the problem is the French pretense that they are “colour blind” making it virtually impossible to discuss racism in France.

Thuram blames local authorities who frequently refuse to acknowledge that racism even exists. As reported by the New York Times, Sissoko’s assault was not classified as racially motivated by the local football officials in the area.

Criticism of inadequate responses to racism go all the way to the governing body FIFA. In June this year, FIFA fined an England player 16 000 pounds for sipping an energy drink that was not the official sponsor of last years Under 20 World Cup. The sanction was only 6000 pounds less than Russia’s 22 000 pounds fine for the racial abuse of black French players during an international friendly in March this year. FIFA proclaims that it has a zero-tolerance policy towards racism but are they really leading by example? Domestically, is docking league points sufficient?

Depending on the outcome of investigations in the PSG saga this could be a crucial opportunity for French officials to set an example and send a strong message that racism will no longer taint and disgrace French football.

**This article appeared in Voice360 and the Star Newspaper on 15 November 2018

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