The World game, the beautiful game, football, soccer, religion, whatever you want to call it — it is the game that is on more TV screens, in more fields and more stadiums than any other game across the globe. It has seen moments of true beauty like Mark Bresciano (Australian midfielder) tying the laces of a mascot at the 2014 World Cup and moments of horror like Andres Escobar’s (Columbian defender) assassination in 1994. The game has weathered many controversies like Jack Warner (special advisor, politician) puppeteering the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association in 2006 and Sepp Blatter (ex-FIFA President) being accused of corruption and sexual assault in 2015 and 2017. The point is, throughout all of this, football has kept going. It has survived riots, hooliganism, stadium collapses and subsequent cover-ups that have brought the whole community closer together but there is something football hasn’t been able to do yet — and that is making it inclusive of all.
I am a football fanatic, I love my team (Aston Villa, for those wondering) and I consume as much of it as I can — living in Australia the time zones make it a little hard to watch. It is with football warming my heart that I say the beautiful game is truly ugly. When it comes to racism, sexism and homophobia — football is failing. It has been coined the world game because it is everywhere but that hasn’t stopped abuse, prejudice and bias sneaking onto the field.
Football is failing on the sexism front and granted there has never been a better time to be a female footballer, but it is still far behind other football codes. In recent years we have seen a bigger reception for women’s football at the FIFA Women’s World Cup with stadiums increasing in average attendance since the low point in the ’95 World Cup — which only saw an average attendance of 4,315. Attendance now sits on average around 27,000 (based on the last three editions of the tournament). We’ve even seen the introduction of the women’s Ballon d’Or and Puskas Award — which are arguably the biggest awards for individuals in football but despite these advances, the setbacks have been too many.
2018 was the first year to have a women’s award for the Ballon d’Or, and despite it being won by Olympic Lyon’s emphatic striker, Ada Hegerberg, the ceremony was mired with controversy. The controversy had nothing to do with Hegerberg deserving or not deserving the award (as an Aussie I was disappointed not to see Sam Kerr win, but that is my bias), it had everything to with French DJ Martin Solveig who presented the award. Upon receiving the award Hegerberg spoke about the importance of this, how it would be an inspiration for young women across the globe who are aspiring to be footballers and was finished when the DJ asked the striker if she knew how to twerk. At that moment Hegerberg went from top athlete to sex object which will make her award remembered for the systemic sexism in the game instead of her skill. To Hegerberg’s absolute credit as a professional, she took the twerking comment in her stride and remains resolute about the importance of the award and Martin Solveig has apologised saying that he intended it as a joke but admits it was in poor taste.
To compound the justified cries of sexism at football, it followed up this controversy by announcing less than a week later that their Video Assistant Referee (VAR) ‘might’ not be used at the upcoming 2019 Women’s World Cup. A move that is again displaying how FIFA feels about the women’s game and that feeling is that the female players are second-class citizens compared to their coveted men — who experienced VAR at the 2018 Russian World Cup. Second class citizens, whilst horrible, slightly edges the sex objects they are usually seen as — something that became so normal in FIFA that their ex-president, Sepp Blatter, said in 2004 “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts”. It should also be noted that during Blatter’s reign at the helm, he was accused of sexually assaulting US star goalkeeper, Hope Solo, at the 2015 Ballon d’Or ceremony without any repercussions from the organisation.
Sexism isn’t the only place where football is failing, racism has again raised its ugly head in the game. In a recent Manchester City vs Chelsea match star England forward, Raheem Sterling was racially abused from the sidelines by at least four Chelsea fans — whilst some people might be seeing these abuses as a team related attack, Sterling has pointed to a far bigger systemic problem fuelling it. In an Instagram post after the match, Sterling launched a brave attack on the English media who, in his eyes, have been stoking the flames of racism with their coverage for years. Sterling pointed particularly to the coverage of Phil Foden and Tosin Adarabioyo both purchasing 2 million-pound houses for their mum’s. The media criticised Adarabioyo and praised Foden…can you guess which one is white?
Ex Wimbledon midfielder, Robbie Earle, agrees with Sterling about media coverage showing racial bias. He recently spoke to NBC and stated, “I’ve talked to lots of players back in England, current and ex-players, the majority of them black players, and there is a feeling that Raheem Sterling gets racist connotations, racist criticism that wouldn’t be the same if he was a white player,”. The worst part of Sterling’s treatment is he is not alone, less than a week before Sterling’s abuse, Gabon and Arsenal striker, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, had a banana skin thrown at him during a north London derby with Tottenham Hotspur.
It doesn’t stop with racism for football though, sexuality has long been a taboo subject in football — and the proof is there are no openly gay footballers in the top leagues. A trend that extends to ex-players not feeling comfortable enough to come out as gay. Ex-Aston Villa and West Ham left footed ace, Thomas Hitzlsperger is the only top flighter to come out as gay after retiring. Prominent France striker, Olivier Giroud, is a proud advocate for homosexuality within the game and spoke to Le Figaro to describe Hitzlsperger’s coming out video. “It was very emotional,” stated Giroud, “This is when I told myself that it was impossible to display his homosexuality in football”. You can view part of Hitzlsperger’s interview below.
Hitzlsperger’s experience is one of few, with even less male athletes coming out during their playtime. In football, previous coming out experiences have not ended well — with the most prominent player being Justin Fashanu, brother of John Fashanu. Justin was the first black footballer to receive a transfer fee over 1 million pounds, was capped at the under-21 level for England and came out as gay at 1990, a first for any league. Justin Fashanu admitted to Gay Times in 1991 that he wasn’t fully aware of the consequences of being an openly gay footballer, and that after he came out, he struggled to find offers to play professional football. Justin would take his own life in 1998 after being accused of sexual assault in Maryland (where homosexuality was still illegal) by a 17-year-old — he would state in his suicide letter that the sexual conduct between the pair was consensual.
Each year the leagues across the world try to make themselves more inclusive, create family-friendly atmospheres and work to support their players so why isn’t this showing? The answer is in the stands, the leadership and in equality.
The fans have for a long-time wielded power over the field, with ESPN FC pundit and former Chelsea player Craig Burley describing the situation as ‘privilege’. Burley states that the fans feel an unrestricted power to yell abuse at players, referees and other fans — and this couldn’t be truer. In most cases of racism in the game, it comes from the stands with fan chants, taunts and actions — and it is something the governing body is starting to take more seriously. The European governing body, UEFA, has begun taking actions such as banning fans and forcing games to be played behind closed doors in order to punish the fans for their actions. Steps like this begin to take the power away from the fans that Burley calls ‘privileged’, and hopefully will start to enforce positive behaviour at the games.
Sepp Blatter, who I mentioned before, resigned from his throne as head of FIFA in 2015 following a series of corruption accusations and growing pressure from parts of football for his removal for a range of issues, including his continued sexism. Blatter had been in power for 17 years and had worked in senior roles since 1975 at FIFA. This was a big change for FIFA and has seen some sweeping changes in the organisation with Gianni Infantino now at the helm. Since 2016, Infantino has supported female players who have protested against unfair payment conditions at both club and international level and has announced increases to prize money for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup to encourage better talent, fairer pay and a better atmosphere to the game. Infantino is pushing the game to equal footing and leadership that supports inclusion is vital for it succeeding.
I wish I had one more paragraph where I could show you the ways football is increasing inclusion for the gay community, unfortunately, it seems the efforts of the leagues worldwide aren’t achieving what they want. The English Premier League are fervent supporters of the Rainbow Laces program and have a pride week where clubs are encouraged to show their support for the wide LGBTQI+ community. This support is met mostly with great applause, however, there is still a large group of supporters who would prefer the game not show any support. This vocal minority is loud and proud to be homophobic, something that I saw when my club changed their crest for a week to include the rainbow flag. Whilst most comments on their Facebook page called out the hate from people reacting angrily, many comments included messages of hate such as one person saying “DISLIKE, Aston Villa what are you doing to your supporters?, cause if this continuous, I will burn my Aston Villa shirts!!”. This vitriolic hate displayed by some supporters is driving players who are homosexual underground with British media reporting there are a few gay players who are afraid to come out. This sentiment is echoed by Hector Bellerin, the Arsenal full-back, who grew his hair long and received taunts calling him a lesbian. “In football, the culture is different. It can be very personal, very nasty, particularly for players from the opposition team” Bellerin commented on the situation he experienced.
Football is the beautiful game on the pitch, but off the pitch, it is working hard to not become ugly. Throughout recent years there has been a push to make inclusion a core part of the top leagues in Europe, and with better leadership at the helm of FIFA, I believe it is making progress. Unfortunately, this progress is being hindered by a loud minority of fans who attack players, clubs and other fans with their hate, bias and prejudice. If you are out at a match during the Christmas period, in any sports code, and witness any of this hate I implore you to step up and let them know that hate is unsportsmanlike, let the security team know and start making all feel welcome to the beautiful game.
Centre for Inclusive Design is a social enterprise that helps government, educators, business and community organisations design and deliver products, services and experiences that are accessible and usable by as many people as possible. For more information visit www.cfid.org.au.
This article was written by Scott Sumner on behalf of Centre for Inclusive Design.