I used to love football. Now, I only have a passing interest. I can’t remember the last time I watched a full game that did not involve my club, Sheffield Wednesday. The game isn’t what I fell in love with, and I think it can all be boiled down to two core problems; racism and greed. Although it might not seem apparent at first, there is some cross over between these two issues.
The upcoming World Cup in Qatar is a prime example of how racism and greed are woven into the fabric of modern football. No one will ever convince me that Qatar was awarded the World Cup purely on merit. It was money driven, pure and simple. But what about racism?
In order to host the competition, Qatar has had to build a whole new infrastructure of stadiums and transport links. This work is being completed almost exclusively by migrant workers brought to Qatar under false promises of good jobs, fair wages and safe conditions. There have been a number of excellent articles highlighting the plight of migrant workers in Qatar, and I’m not going to dwell on the point too much as better writers than me have said much of what needs to be said. My point here is that this is a form of racism. These migrant workers are tricked into travelling from India, Nepal, Pakistan, and other poor countries, and then they are worked to death. As recently as February this year, The Guardian reported that 6,500 migrant workers have died working on projects in the country since the World Cup was awarded. This World Cup is soaked in blood; the blood of individuals trapped in a form of modern day slavery. The fact that more people are not outraged by this speaks volumes, and the relative silence from high profile players and managers is deafening. Do these players and managers lack any sort of moral compass? Or, are they trapped in watertight contracts requiring them to participate?
Racism in football is not limited to Qatar working people from other countries to death, and operating a form of apartheid where the workers are kept out of sight and out of mind. Racism is still prevalent in the stands of many football grounds. Up until quite recently (2019) I was a season ticket holder at Hillsborough where Sheffield Wednesday play, and racist language was heard frequently from people who should know better. I don’t accept the argument that this is a generational thing, and that it was different back in the day. We used to burn people who believed a slightly different version of a fairly tale, but it doesn’t mean it was right. Likewise, just because certain words and behaviours were accepted in the past, it doesn’t make it right now. Everyone should know better, but still people use vile language against non-white players. It’s wrong.
Whilst racism is a problem in the stadiums up and down the country, there are many instances where the racists are confronted by other fans. An issue that is being highlighted more frequently is racist abuse directed at players on social media. I don’t know if it is happening more often, or just being reported more often, or a combination of both. However, the fact it is under the microscope is a good thing because it brings the discussion out into the open. When racist language is there, online, for all to see, nobody can argue racism is not a problem in football. People think they can hide behind the anonymity of the internet and in some cases they may be correct. We will only start to tackle this problem when the veil of anonymity is removed and all social media accounts are operated under real names with verifiable identification used when creating a profile.
A number of players, managers and pundits have called for a social media boycott to highlight racism in football. Whilst I am all for open dialogue and suggestions to tackle this problem, boycotting social media is not the answer. Just because a player is not on social media, it does not stop racists from posting abuse about that player. Whichever way I think about the problem, I keep coming back to the same solution; we need to remove the shield of anonymity from the internet. I’m not a tech expert but there must be ways of tracking down these individuals. Even if it is not possible to track every single one of them down, the act of tracking some of them down and prosecuting them may be enough to make other racists pause and reflect.
Football has a close relationship with alcohol. There are many fans who have a few pints before, during and after attending a match, or watching on TV. Alcohol makes people act in ways they would not when sober. This is not an excuse for racist behaviour, but it might be an explanation. Emotions run high in football and when people mix intense emotions with alcohol it can produce strange, uncharacteristic behaviour. Ultimately though, being drunk does not excuse acting in a racist way and you are still responsible for your behaviour when drunk.
Football is not just a sport anymore. It’s a business that has billions and billions of pounds running through it every year. The financial impacts of each win and loss at the top levels of the game are astounding. Money is now part of every discussion fans have about their club, whether it’s discussing transfers, contracts, prize money or the impacts of relegation or promotion. Fans don’t just talk about the sport of football anymore. Money is part of almost every conversation, and I’m not just talking about football itself but the peripheral industries like gambling that have wormed their way into the fabric of football.
In the 2020/2021 season, eight of the twenty Premier League clubs have a gambling company as their primary shirt sponsor. In the EFL Championship, twelve of the twenty-four clubs have gambling companies as their primary shirt sponsor. Football gambling is a huge business generating billions of pounds. If you go to a match now, you will see advertisements for different betting companies everywhere you look. Football is not about football anymore. Football is about money, and where money is on the line, people do not act rationally.
The last few days have been something of a crisis for football with the news that six clubs in England, referred to as “the big six” were breaking away to form a European Super League with clubs from Spain, Italy and Germany. This news went down about as well as any typical fan would have predicted. The backlash was so scathing that just a few days later (at the time of writing) ten of the initial twelve clubs linked with this new league have backed out. This new ESL was not an attempt to improve the standard of competition. It was an exercise in greed, creating a closed shop where the biggest clubs could sell TV rights for insane money. I don’t think the issue has gone away for good, and I expect some revised form of the ESL to be put forward in a few years.
When football is pure, it’s a fantastic sport. There really is nothing like watching your team with tens of thousands of fellow fans as you win a match with a last minute goal, or you give your biggest rivals a footballing lesson. It’s at those times when the sport pulls you back in and you remember why you once loved the game. Those moments seem to be getting less frequent. As the amount of money in the game continues to grow, the consequences of losing are getting worse all the time. This forces clubs to adopt a defensive mindset with avoiding defeat becoming more important than seeking victory. In the Premier League, there are six or seven teams competing for the top four spots, whilst the rest of the division is content to simply avoid finishing in the bottom three. Relegation used to be embarrassing, but now it can be financially catastrophic. It’s not about the sport, it’s about the money.