Giving racism the red card: let’s keep up momentum

Ian Wright

Revered by many, black Arsenal and England legend Ian Wright has had an illustrious career warranting multiple titles and scoring 324 goals in the process.  

This May, he was called a “monkey” over social media by a teenager.

Methods of racism in football have evolved from solely being spewed in the stands and in the pubs, racist rhetoric also now emerges in the realms of social media. The ease of hiding behind a virtual barrier and unknown aliases encourages imbeciles to discharge irrational hate.

However, in today’s society racism is not exclusively bound by a political party, centralised group or idiots on Twitter. It rather makes up a poisonous psyche that’s materialised through discriminative narratives, unfair bias and intangible prejudice.

These factors are personified through the press. When black Manchester City winger, Raheem Sterling, was racially abused at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge in 2018, he stated this was a result of some sections of the media helping to “fuel racism” with their portrayal of young black footballers.

Sterling has often been thrust under an intense media spotlight for a plethora of non-issues – from being ‘caught’ shopping at Poundland, to the “blinging” house he bought for his mother, up until just before the last World Cup when he was criticised for having a tattoo of a gun on his calf as it was said to glamorise guns and gang violence.

If say, a young white player, was found shopping at Poundland, buying his mum a house or having a dodgy tattoo, would these non-stories have made headlines?

It’s said that in the United Kingdom we do not witness the same extent of racism in football as other European nations. Recently in Portugal, FC Porto striker Moussa Marega was the subject of widespread racist abuse at a match that was so intense, Marega walked off the pitch in protest. Meanwhile in Italy, racism has been defended by supporters’ groups and even owners of clubs in what some have described as a culture war.

Although we’ve not seen players leaving the pitch in protest on our shores, nor do supporter groups and club owners defend racism in the UK, racism makes its way into the mainstream through other routes.

These routes are complex, often disputed and potentially incendiary, but football appears to have much deeper and more ingrained problems with racial prejudice than we readily acknowledge. 

More prominent and subtler biases are found in wishy-washy articles and inappropriate, outdated dialogue. Yet this form is equally destructive and in turn creates a culture where irrational distaste becomes increasingly acceptable and can lead to rises in racist incidents – as seen with Ian Wright on Twitter and Raheem Sterling at Chelsea.

Last season, racist football incidents saw a sharp 50% increase, with 150 reported to police. In response to these figures, a spokesperson for football equality and inclusion organisation, Kick It Out, stated: “Racism is both a football and societal issue, and it is clear that we are living in a climate of rising hatred and tribalism across the world.”

This is worrying. Although the Premier League and Football Association (FA) can point to their ever-increasing £270,000 per annum funding of Kick It Out, their No Room for Racism campaign and the introduction of the BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) Participants’ Advisory Group, the current landscape suggests more needs to be done.

John Barnes, an iconic figure in the fight against racism in English Football

While these campaigns all play a significant part in the fight to eradicate racism from football, they are less effective in nipping prejudice in the bud. Calling out subtler racist narratives is essential if this is to be achieved. However, this is easier said than done. Actively boycotting newspapers sounds like a simple solution, but has Orwellian undertones and can be seen as an attack on free speech.

Change must come through education. In spite of complications and negative statistics, the last couple of weeks have been encouraging and we have seen excellent progress for the beginnings of a cultural shift.

The tragic and racist killing of George Floyd has fuelled the fire for worldwide awareness of black issues. Black Lives Matter rallies have transcended borders, and we have even seen support from the Premier League with footballers posting on social media, taking a knee in solidarity and wearing “Black Lives Matter” on the backs of their shirts.

In turn of these events, Ian Wright has stated he is “very optimistic about the future” but “can’t stress enough how important it is for the momentum to not be lost”. 

The growing momentum and work currently being put in place is essential in creating an ethos for future generations to understand, call out and ultimately show racism the red card.

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Football transfer market: when will the window open and close? Both a buyers-market and surges in loan deals lie ahead

Jadon Sancho Dortmund
Jadon Sancho (currently Borussia Dortmund) has been linked with numerous top European clubs in a big money move.

Officially, this summer’s Premier League transfer window is set to open on 10th June and close on 1st September. 

However, there has been speculation as to when it will close with suggestions of an end date next January. 

According to The Telegraph, teams could be able to reinforce their squads during the next campaign to help assist the difficulties dealt by the pandemic and encourage the return of business.

Yet despite football’s disrupted schedule and financial losses, ongoing big money rumours suggest the market status quo remains. However, recent reports from the CIES Football Observatory indicate transfer market values could decrease by 28% across the top five European leagues. 

The pandemic has had such an impact that the BBC reported one senior source at an unnamed Premier League club was said to be “staggered” by Jadon Sancho’s continued £100 million valuation.

The reductions in transfer values could see both winners and losers as it could both inflict serious financial harm on clubs that rely on transfer market returns for profit, while those clubs buying could gain top-quality players at cheaper prices. 

According to analysis conducted by KPMG we could witness a ‘buyer’s market’, in which some clubs will exploit the financial positions of others, acquiring players at significantly lower sums. 

Despite this, former Liverpool and Tottenham director of football, Damien Comolli, suggests only three Premier League clubs will have the luxury of spending in the next window. 

Comolli also suggests clubs that possess large overheads will suffer, with Spurs in particular continuing to manage the mammoth cost of their new £1 billion stadium.

With little transfer activity and large decreases in fees, Comolli predicts a surge in cheaper loan moves and swap deals. 

According to sports finance expert, Dr Rob Wilson, the increased use of the loan system, particularly by lower league clubs will actually help “redistribute playing talent” but forecasts a “depression” in the transfer market. 

“Even if clubs are able to pay big fees, the public perception will be so poor that they will try to avoid it,” he added.

“That will naturally depress the total value of the transfer market, and clubs should use this to their advantage in player contract negotiations so anybody looking at contract renewals will probably look at lighter contracts.”

The situation is evolving day-by-day as world football continues to get to grips with the impact of coronavirus.

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Coronavirus: how can football come home if nobody’s in?

Lower League Football Ground

The last time football succumbed to an international crisis was the Second World War. Now, 81-years later as coronavirus tears its way through the world economy, clubs up and down the English league system are feeling the effects.

The Premier League

In the Premier League, postponed matches, jeopardised sponsorship deals, and an estimated £750 million loss each in broadcaster money have all massively cut top-tier sides’ revenue.

Additionally, Premier League clubs owe £1.6 billion in outstanding debt from previous transfers. Usually transfer instalments are a controllable method of business, yet with revenue cut, concerns arise with the necessity of balancing budgets.

Amongst other complications, these issues have undoubtedly led to severe drops in financial sustainability.

However, Premier League sides are well poised to mitigate at least some of their losses through the fiscal might of billionaire owners, global fan bases and the increasing probability of Project Restart.

Despite this, back in April, many were outraged as Bournemouth, Liverpool, Tottenham, Newcastle and Norwich all took advantage of the government’s tax-payer funded furlough scheme, entitling some of their non-playing staff to 80% of their wages, up to £2,500 a month.

While Liverpool, Tottenham and Bournemouth all eventually made U-turns on these decisions after what ended in a PR disaster, the damage was done.

It’s clear Premier League sides have necessary funds to fall back on in a crisis, without relying on tax-payer money. Last year Liverpool payed agent fees of £44 million, making a cool £42 million profit. Meanwhile, Tottenham continue to pay an annual player wage bill of £147.6 million.

Lower Leagues

We didn’t witness the same public outrage when clubs lower down the football food-chain, such as Crewe Alexandra in League Two, reached the same judgement in furloughing staff – and for good reason.

Football finance expert Kieran Maguire described the pandemic as taking lower league clubs “to their knees”. Maguire estimates the Championship alone has already lost a cumulative £650 million. Meanwhile, the 48 clubs that make up League One and Two are expecting combined losses of somewhere in the region of £50 million.

Perhaps the most catastrophic outcome of the pandemic for lower league sides is the looming reality of games being played behind closed doors until 2021.

While the Premier League’s Project Restart would generate as much as £340 million in broadcast refunds, the same cannot be said for sides at the bottom of the English football pyramid. For them, bums on seats make up to 80% of their revenue.

Non-League

The current situation has hit non-league clubs particularly hard.

Far removed from the glitz of the Premier League, footballers in this tier rely on modest salaries as their main income source. Yet with clubs suffering a revenue drought, where will non-league sides find themselves once football returns? If they survive, will reduced salary contract offers be worth accepting? Would players look to other, more financially sustainable professions, threatening non-league’s very existence?

Only time will answer the above questions. However, with fifth-tier side Barnet FC recently recording losses of £100,000 a month and consequently laying off around 60 staff members to reduce costs, non-league’s future is looking bleak.

Barnet Football Club's Ground
Barnet FC, Underhill Stadium. Barnet FC recently recorded losses of £100,000 a month.

Predictions of up to 10 football clubs going under in the coming weeks are therefore unsurprising, and suggestions that we’re currently witnessing the end of non-league football are becoming increasingly probable.

Grass-roots

There have also been comparable suggestions when it comes to the fate of the football ladder’s bottom rung – grass-roots.

The pandemic has hit grass-roots communities up and down the nation exponentially. Money amateur sides would usually get from training-session fees or fundraisers isn’t coming in as these events aren’t taking place, meaning clubs are struggling to afford annual pitch hire, league and council fees.

Additionally, local businesses who sponsor grass-roots clubs are losing money, while there’s also the prospect of councils selling pitches used by grass-roots communities in order to fund rescue packages – effectively making the game homeless.

The possibility of grass-roots’ decimation could potentially kick-start a player recruitment domino effect; starting at the bottom, working its way to the top.

If this happens, non-league, lower-league, and even Premier League clubs and academies would all fall victim, having a reliable stream of home-grown talent cut at the source.

Without grass-roots, a generation would be starved of the ingrained English football psyche. How can football come home if nobody’s there to answer the door?

Yet it would be our local communities that would suffer most. Alongside general health and wellbeing, grass-roots opportunities allow integral societal lessons, permitting young people to develop socially, learn life skills and foster talent.

Sunday League Pitch
Pitches are at risk of being sold by respective councils to fund care packages.

What’s to be done?

When both Bury and Bolton came close to liquidation last summer, fans were shocked that two historic clubs, pillars of their respective communities and homes of numerous people’s livelihoods could so helplessly cease to exist.

It is not a question of “if”, but of “when” clubs across the league tier-system will fall victim to similar circumstances.

The EFL has committed £50 million to clubs most in need, while in April, players and managers from across the football league accepted pay-cuts and saw players in League One and League Two on more than £30,000 a week defer 25% of their wages.

We may also see clubs up and down the football league system be creative and explore ways to re-generate match day revenue.

Danish Superliga leaders, FC Midtjylland, have revealed ingenious plans to welcome supporters back to their stadium by setting up a ‘drive-in’ experience where fans can watch games on a giant screen.

FC Midtjylland, MCH Arena
FC Midtjylland, MCH Arena. The club plans on installing an outside screen to welcome back fans to the stadium.

However, if football is to navigate these murky waters, guidance must come from above.

Last month, Culture, Media & Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden announced a £16m package to help Rugby League through its financial difficulties. If lower-league clubs finding themselves taken to their knees have any chances of surviving, a similar initiative sanctioned by either the government or the Premier league is vital – not just for football’s wellbeing, but also the nation’s.

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Project Restart, the story so far: criticisms, challenges, logjam

Training pitch balls

Decisions are being made on resuming top-flight football. While France’s Ligue 1 and the Dutch Eredivisie have both been abandoned, the German Bundesliga has restarted.

Since the Premier League’s suspension on 13th March, lobbying efforts to allow football’s return have been well received by the government, with cabinet member Dominic Raab stating the return of sports would “lift the spirits of the nation”.

The Project

On 11th May the government approved the league’s continuation for any date after 1st June. The logistics of ‘Project Restart’ are currently being negotiated.

The scheme would commence on 12th June and see the remaining 92 league games and additional FA Cup fixtures played over an intensive seven-weekend period with two matches played mid-week in what some have described as a ‘football festival’, costing clubs £340 million in television revenue refunds.

These fixtures would be played behind closed doors at around ten neutral venues in an attempt to moderate the risk of fans congregating outside stadia. Project Restart would also include the use of 40,000 coronavirus testing kits in the effort to control the virus.

All Premier League clubs will return to training from 19th May and social distancing measures will remain essential with other precautions implemented where possible and necessary. For example, tackling will be banned while balls, corner flags, cones and even playing surfaces will be disinfected and players will be restricted to training groups of up to five.

Additional ongoing surveillance measures that include twice-weekly testing and a daily pre-training questionnaire and temperature check will also be implemented.

Similar plans are being considered for lower leagues.

Corona virus empty stadium

The Criticisms

Given the tight-time frame, the project’s viability has been questioned. Dependent on self-isolation measures, clubs could find it difficult preparing their teams in a short window, to then start playing multiple matches in a concentrated period. An increased risk of injury is a major concern amongst many clubs.

This project is facing a race against time. Top flight managers and captains have all raised concerns over the quick turnaround, and the 12th June start date is looking increasingly likely to be pushed back a week to 19th June. 

Most worrying however, and what forms the basis of opposition towards Project Restart are the moral issues at play – the increased risk for individuals to contract and spread the virus.

Some reports suggest a Premier League game needs anything of up to 500 personnel at a stadium, while lower down the Football League, suggestions of anything up to 180. The health threat posed has resulted in doctors from 20 top-flight sides contacting the Premier League with around 100 questions and issues to voice their concerns on returning to training and fixtures.

Premier League players have been advised to make their own decisions on the safety and fairness of resuming, with some making it clear they feel they’ve been put under ‘intolerable pressure’ to save the game from financial meltdown and finish the league.

It has been reported that Pep Guardiola, Frank Lampard, Nigel Pearson and Graham Potter all voiced their concerns on rushing back to games. Understandably, those involved are concerned for not only their own wellbeing, but also their families. 

While precautions have been made necessary for training, once games commence some will be impossible to implement.

The Challenges

Tensions are high after a third Brighton player in England and three FC Köln players in Germany all recently tested positive for coronavirus. In fact, Sky Sports reported one Premier League club owner believes the ubiquitous risk and intensified circumstances have made players reluctant to return to work, and there is now a “40 per cent” chance of the current campaign’s cancellation.

Burnley players turf moor

As the FA emphasised they would not sanction the season being voided, nor allow relegation to be scrapped, the option to determine the league null and void without both a winner or relegated teams and having a twenty-two-team-league next year for one season only has been ruled out.

Therefore, if the season is cancelled the only likely option would be to determine the final league standing via mathematical formula. This could result in a “summer of chaos” with relegated clubs suing the Premier League, likely on grounds of illegitimacy.

Certain aspects of Project Restart have also been challenged from within. At least two-thirds of clubs oppose the neutral venues directive, while the BBC reported some clubs towards the lower end of the division will accept the idea of neutral venues if the prospect of relegation is removed, their argument being the benefits players feel from playing at home.

Similarly, Watford chairman and chief executive, Scott Duxbury, stated playing at neutral venues would compromise the game’s fairness and sporting integrity. Others have pointed to the fact that many Premier League sides have large, state-wide followings. This could mean eager fans from across the nation could and would gather outside any stadium, neutral or not and regardless of geography, suggesting the irrelevance of the initial reasoning behind the neutral-grounds directive.

It is clear internal mutinies threaten the existence of the project. Directives require 14 of the 20 Premier League clubs to vote in favour. If logjam continues and clubs fail to get their act together to agree on key elements of Project Restart, English football faces missing UEFAs 25th May deadline regarding season completion or cancellation.

A timeline of what’s next is below:

  • Monday, 18 May: Next Premier League meeting
  • Monday, 18 May: Premier League players may return to initial group training under socially distancing protocols
  • 25 May: UEFA deadline for leagues to have finalised plan for restarting seasons
  • 1 June: Government date for possible return of elite sport behind closed doors in England
  • 12 June: Premier League aiming to return with first fixture

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