The Said and Done section in The Observer is always an enlightening and entertaining read on football at its most corrupt, hypocritical and absurd. The latest updates on managerial sackings and the bizarre goings-on in South America – the wild west of football – can always be trusted upon to induce laughter, while Sepp Blatter and his Fifa cronies are near-constant objects of lampooning.
One of the more eye-opening segments of the weekly column deals with racism in football, and last week’s entries made for particularly sobering reading. We learnt that Fifa’s stance on Russia’s record with racism when inspectors were assessing their World Cup bid in 2010 was that it was “not an operational matter” and therefore “not a factor” in the process, despite the fact that fans of Russian clubs have been seen flying flags emblazoned with slogans such as ‘Happy Holocaust’ and ‘Monkey go home’; in Bulgaria, meanwhile, there was news of Levski Sofia fans unveiling a banner decorated with the Uefa logo and the words ‘Say Yes to Racism’, while Rapid Bucharest coach Marian Rada had the following to say after Rapid fans aimed racist chants and threw a banana at Concordia Chianjna’s Wellington, which reduced the player to tears:
“Was he crying? Maybe Wellington should have cried because he didn’t score … Maybe a banana just slipped out of someone’s hand in the stands.”
Pretty depressing stuff then, and evidence – as if it were really needed – that football is stuck in the dark ages and that its problems with racism remain significant and unresolved.
Or is it? Jose Mourinho begs to differ. When questioned on the possible introduction of the Rooney Rule in English football – the successful NFL statute which requires teams to interview at least one candidate from an ethnic minority background for roles in head coaching – the Chelsea boss argued that there is “no racism in football”, that “if you are good, you prove that you deserve the job” and that “football is not stupid to close the doors to top people. If you are top, you are top”.
The point that Mourinho was trying to get across – that managers should be appointed on merit, not on the colour of their skin – may have been lost in translation. However, his claim that there is no racism in football was striking, irresponsible (given his position as the manager of a leading Premier League club) and more than anything, wildly inaccurate.
The anti-racism Kick It Out campaign, though far from perfect, already faces significant challenges to getting its voice heard in English football. Its headquarters are in a fourth-floor office above a pizza shop in Clerkenwell, and in the multi-billion pound Premier League industry, it receives funding of less than £300,000 a year. It could therefore do without men like Mourinho – whose soundbites are pounced upon by the media – undermining its cause by saying that racism is not an issue in the game, when it clearly is.
Perhaps we are being unfair on Mourinho. He may have been shirking from the uncomfortable truth that his club captain John Terry was found guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand three years ago, or he may, as has already been noted, have merely chosen the wrong words, and that what he really meant was that merit, not skin colour, is the only thing that employers care about. To an extent, Mourinho is right – in an ideal world, merit should be the sole factor in determining the suitability of a candidate to a managerial role. However the world of football is far from ideal, and there is an undeniable and visible lack of black managers in the English game compared to the number of black players. Implementation of a footballing equivalent of the Rooney Rule would not harm the chances of other candidates nor the values of meritocracy; it would simply ensure that aspiring coaches from minority backgrounds are at least given consideration.
Football has a long way to go in its war against racism, and compared to the attitudes of certain fans and individuals in other countries, English football is a progressive utopia of racial harmony. Nevertheless, the game needs prominent figures such as Mourinho to highlight, not downplay the issue, otherwise we may find ourselves fighting a losing battle.