By Edward Lord, member of the English Football Association’s Inclusion Board
Association Football (or soccer) is the world’s favourite sport, played by more than 240 million players in 1.4 million teams and 300,000 clubs across the world and that is before you even consider the over a billion fans who support their local and national sides. With that kind of extraordinary reach, it might be assumed that soccer must by its very nature be incredibly inclusive. After all, as a global sport, soccer is played and supported by people representing the vast majority of the world’s nationalities, religions, and racial groups.
And yet, despite this, soccer remains embroiled in controversy for its failure to embrace diversity and make all people feel welcome on the pitch or as spectators in stadia. Accusations of racism on the field and exhibitions of racist and ultra nationalist conduct by fans often discourage people from getting involved in the game as players or supporters.
The FARE Network has just published its report on incidents that took place during the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. It describes 14 occasions in which visiting fans brought their own prejudices, attitudes and ways of supporting football that most fair-minded people would categorise as discriminatory. The incidents include homophobic abuse, racism, and references to far-right ideologies.
In other areas of diversity, soccer is also seriously lacking. With the obvious exception of the United States, women’s football is very much a second class sport compared to the men’s game in most countries. It doesn’t attract anywhere near the same level of media exposure, which has a knock on detrimental impact on public support and commercial sponsorship.
Perhaps this is at least in part due to the sexist attitudes of senior soccer administrators. Who can forget FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s suggestion in 2004 that women footballers should “play in different and more feminine garb than the men, in tighter shorts for example”, let alone the leaked emails of the English Premier League Chief this year in which he referred to women as “gash”.
Disability football is so little thought of that it doesn’t even fall within the ambit of FIFA as soccer’s world governing body, despite blind and cerebral palsy football both being Paralympic sports.
As for LBGT involvement in soccer, we remain in a position where male gay and bisexual professional footballers are too afraid to come out for fear of adverse reaction by fans and their fellow players. Whilst things have certainly moved on since Justin Fashanu’s suicide in 1998, there was certainly not universal acclaim when Thomas Hitzlsperger and Robbie Rogers came out, both after they had retired from the top flight. Similarly, whilst LGBT fan groups are becoming increasing visible, like Arsenal’s Gay Gooners group marching in the London Pride Parade, soccer stadiums often remain intimidating venues for queer supporters.
So it seems that despite its global reach, soccer still has much to do to in order to be a really open and welcoming sport. As in many industries, things will only improve if diversity role models and allies become visible and proactive in their promotion of inclusion within the game. At the same time football authorities need to adopt a zero tolerance approach to discrimination, implementing effective reporting and disciplinary systems that give people confidence that misconduct will be taken seriously and perpetrators will be punished. Team administrators, managers and coaches also have a role to play and will need training so that they can serve as advocates for diversity, creating an inclusive team environment. Only by taking these steps will football be able to justify its claim that it is for everyone.
Edward Lord OBE is a senior sports administrator and an active equality campaigner. He serves on the Inclusion Advisory Board of the English Football Association and is Chair of the Board of the ASA, England’s governing body for swimming, diving, water polo and other aquatic disciplines. He was recognised by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for his work on inclusion in 2011, being made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.