It has been suggested by Sepp Blatter that Jeffrey Webb, FIFA’s vice president and the head of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force, might succeed the Swiss administrator as President of FIFA. This support for Webb came after he hosted FIFA officials at a gala in Grand Cayman (a Caribbean island) to promote CONCACAF, the federation of North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. As head of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force, Webb has been vociferous in his condemnation of the handling of previous cases of racism in football, the BBC citing him as saying: “With the money that’s involved in football, I don’t think fines are working.”
Only a few hours before Webb would receive this commendation from Blatter, Yaya Toure, playing for Chelsea against CSKA Moscow in the Russian capital, was subjected to monkey gestures from the crowd. He had worn a ‘No to Racism’ armband issued by UEFA throughout the match and, in spite of appeals to both fans and the referee, had to put up with the abuse for the remainder of the game.
Monkey gestures coming from football terraces are, unfortunately, nothing new. Indeed, racism continues to plague the “modern” game. Recent instances include fines of £16,700 and £34,000 handed down to Porto and Bulgaria respectively in 2012 for racist abuse by their fans.
Journalists pointed out that these fines combined were only a fraction of those handed down to Nicklas Bendtner when he revealed Paddy Power adverts on his underwear after scoring a goal (he was charged £80,000). More recently we have seen grand gestures being made towards stamping out racist abuse in the stands with police promising to prosecute Tottenham Hotspurs fans using anti-semitic language.
It is not only the players on the pitch who suffer from such abuse by the supposed “fans” of the game. While conducting research in Jamaica, I spoke to some of the most avid fans of the Premier League that I have ever met. For them, issues of racism were part and parcel of the game. On the field, players would say anything to each other to throw them off their game and this, according to the Jamaican fans, was as it should be in a competitive situation. What particularly upset them was abuse directed at players by the fans of the game.
Describing seeing Didier Drogba abused by sections of the crowd whilst playing for Chelsea, one Jamaican Chelsea supporter told me: “Seeing that, it just made me kinda feel a way.” One woman I spoke to had so taken such images to heart that she thought that people from England referred to black Jamaicans as “gorillas\”.
On its website, FIFA has rolled out an ambitious development initiative across the Caribbean region, claiming that the “budget for the 2011-2014 financial cycle amounts to USD 800 million, which is 56 times the amount invested in 1995-1998”. These “development initiatives” not only involve promoting football as a means towards social development (after all, handing a few footballs to impoverished communities hardly ameliorates their conditions). They also incorporate those communities into the global trade in football players that increasingly brings talented players from developing countries into more lucrative positions elsewhere in the world. This is particularly the case for players who end up playing in the mega-leagues in England, Spain, and Italy.
After similar initiatives across sub-Saharan Africa, the subsequent South African World Cup in 2010 “accounted for 87% of FIFA’s total revenue”. Both the UN and UNICEF have equally cited football as a pertinent means for social development in deprived areas.
FIFA must act
While the use of football as an initiative might be an effective contribution to social development, FIFA and other football governing bodies must take responsibility for the ways in which football is portrayed in these countries. Increasingly those watching football in Jamaica and elsewhere are coming to see their players at the peaks of their games abused for the colour of their skin.
Just as football is being used as a means for social development in poorer countries, so Jeffrey Webb, Sepp Blatter and others at the top of the game’s administration must begin to take seriously the development initiatives they need to undertake to improve the presentation of the “modern” game as it is broadcast all over the world.
Jeffrey Webb was right when he pointed out that “fines are not working,” but he must also pay attention to the trajectory of a sport that is seen as encouraging talented, professional individuals to play football overseas, only to broadcast these same individuals being arbitrarily targeted, bullied, and taunted for coming from the very countries that FIFA seeks to “develop”.
The issue of racism in football calls into question the very notion of what it means to be a “developed” country.