Keep the beautiful game, beautiful

We must adequately punish those who commit acts of racism and, maybe more importantly, provide support to those footballers who experience this ugly experience | Owen Bonnici

A tussle for the ball in the Faroe Islands-Malta match in Torshavn (Photo: MFA/Facebook)
A tussle for the ball in the Faroe Islands-Malta match in Torshavn (Photo: MFA/Facebook)

I will never forget how much I had enjoyed visiting the language class in the quaint primary school of Birzebbuga last year. I had just been sworn in as education minister. I was greeted by the broad smile of the Wolves-loving, kind-hearted, hard-working head of school Jean Pierre Micallef, as well as one of the most professional educators I have ever met, college principal Paul Debono.

The team included assistant heads as well as Permanent Secretary Dr Frank Fabri.  I was shown around what was being done in the school but what impressed me the most was the language class.

Birzebbuga houses a sizeable community of third-country nationals hailing from the African continent and elsewhere.  As is the case for all children of Birzebbuga, all children have the full right to attend the primary school.

But this phenomenon led the school’s senior management team to introduce language class for non-Maltese children to learn the Maltese language. Once they learn the language, they then continue the normal course of studies along with their peers.

The class I visited was made up of children of Italian, Somali, Libyan and Chinese families. They were learning our language together: it was a joy to watch, the kids helping each other out and the teacher enjoying what she was doing.  On my way out, I met a dark-skinned girl who was either 9 or 10: “Kif inti Ministru?” she asked me in perfect Maltese.  I asked her how long it took her to learn the language and she said four months. The principal said she was dong fantastic at school, and that once she learned the language she was inserted in the year group along with her peers.

I saw her play with her friends in class, running around, having fun with each other. It dawned upon me just at that moment in time that in so far as racism goes, children have a lot to teach us adults. If we were to act in the same way the children in that school acted towards one another, racism would be relegated to the history books.

What triggered me to recall those beautiful memories was a report on what the Santa Lucia goalkeeper, St Kitts and Nevis international Julani Archibald, had to endure during a Premier League football match, suffering the abuse of one or more supporters of the opposite team on the basis of the colour of his skin.

Football is a beautiful game. Racism drains all the beauty out of football as it pours hatred and abuse in a setting which should be based on sportsmanship, talent, tactics and honest entertainment for all the community.

Paul Ian Campbell, a lecturer in sociology (race, ethnicity and leisure) at the University of Leicester analysed the commentary during the FIFA World Cup in 2018. Out of 1,009 comments of praise given to footballers during 30 hours of BBC and ITV coverage, across 20 matches (between 19 of the 32 competing teams), black players were overwhelmingly praised for their perceived physical prowess and natural athleticism, and white players for their intelligence and character.

Campbell sorted out the comments by attribute. The percentage breakdown of 281 praise comments given to visibly black players centred on physical (69.8%), natural (10.7%), learned (10.3%), character (5%) and cognitive (4%) attributes. Of the 448 praise comments given to white players, 47.9% were for their learned attributes, followed by physical (18.3%), character (13.8%), cognition (11.4%) and natural (8.6%) attributes.

The data indicated that this was not simply a case of commentators reporting objectively on what they had seen in the match but it was the case of racialized stereotypes. Certain attributes, such as power and pace, were more likely to be noticed or overlooked depending on the player’s race.

A comment which former Wimbledon star turned commentator Vinnie Jones had passed on England’s Raheem Sterling proves this point: Jones had said that if Sterling didn’t have pace he would not even be playing for England or any team in the English Premier League.

Another academic, Christopher Elsey who lectures in Health and Well Being in Society at the De Montfort University, builds upon the sad experience of English defender Danny Rose who experienced depression following family tragedy, racist abuse and injuries. Fearing similar racism at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Rose told his family to avoid the event altogether.

Elsey explains that racist abuse in football increased sharply in 2019. There were more than 150 incidents reported to police in a single season, representing a rise of more than 50% compared with the season before.

Many people recall the racial abuse which three dark-skinned English players – Rashford, Sancho and Saka – had to endure after failing to score at the penalty stage of the final match of EURO 2020.  An even worse incident had taken place in October 2019 when England was playing away against Bulgaria.

Throughout the game Bulgaria’s fans gave Nazi salutes and hurled persistent racist abuse (including monkey noises) at England’s Tyrone Mings and Raheem Sterling.

Here we are speaking about top professionals who are looked upon as world stars. Imagine what happens to other footballers of colour in less visible leagues elsewhere in the world.

I am confident that the top brass of the Malta Football Association have their heart beating in the right place. I am sure that they will do anything to eradicate the ugliness of racism from the beautiful game. Malta can be a trail-blazer in this field, like we were in other sectors related to minority rights.

As I see it the approach has to be three-pronged: we must prevent racism, we must adequately punish who commits acts of racism and, maybe more importantly, we have also to provide support to those footballers who experience this ugly experience. Racism may have lasting effects on players and until effective change occurs, those same players are essentially being indirectly told to soldier on alone.

Nobody should be left to walk alone.  It is our duty to be there for people like Archibald.  Otherwise, we would have let down that pretty, cute little girl at the Birzebbuga Primary who has a smile as big as the world.