Football and Racism

25 June 2012, 14:52

The first thing that comes to mind in connection with football is that it openly provokes racism. In countries where the sport is popular, where it is played by whites and in a multicultural community like in France, it leads to open racism: non-white players are booed and endure obscenities hurled at them and some people even make faces at them, especially if they play for the opposing team. But these trends are now weakening. Fans usually identify themselves with a city, club or country, and only then sometimes race. The most aggressive may take angry action against supporters of the opposing team based on where they are from, the nation they represent or their race both during the game and outside of the stadium.

Critics of football, including Professor Mark Perelman, say that it is “an emotional plague” that leads to outbursts of unchecked emotions and deviations from normal behaviour. The game is played in front of a large crowd of people and crowds are quickly overcome by emotions. Sometimes fans feel a need to show their superiority over the others, and racism is a ready tool for the aggressive ones.

At the same time, French expert Pascal Boniface points out that anyone can join in football if he has the right qualities. A person achieves success in sport thanks to his talent and nothing else. Unlike the political or business world, football is completely open regardless of the colour of one's skin, ethnic background or social rank. This democratic and open nature of football even causes concern for some proponents of racism. For example, several months prior to the 1998 World Cup, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the National Front, lamented the large number of black players on the French national team. France had won the world title and was called by the media, in a completely positive sense, Black-Blanc-Beur. (Beur is a French word for citizens whose parents immigrated from North Africa. – Ed.)

In France, football is not only open to diversity, it is also a place where antiracism control is present to a much higher degree than anywhere else. Signs of racism in the sport are punished and curbed by football's own officials, and action is taken against clubs whose fans initiate outbursts of racist hatred in stadiums. If a player, coach, manager or referee is suspected of racism or tolerating racism, the French Federation of Football (FFF) investigates and, if needed, applies sanctions. That the FFF is resolutely fighting racism is evidenced by the various educational measures it organises and sponsors. For example, it supported Lilian Thuram, one of the players who brought the victory to the national squad in 1998 who was the victim of racist attacks. Even his children were affected when they studied in an Italian school while he played for Juventus. Thuram set up a foundation for antiracism education.

Football both fosters outbursts of racism and helps fight them at the same time. Given the vagueness of the notion itself, it is not always easy to see where racism begins and where it ends. This can be seen even in the idea of introducing colour quotes which rocked the French football world and, together with it, public opinion. In April 2011, the press reported that the FFF’s National Technical Directorate was considering dropping quotas for black players in football training centres. The quotas favoured white players, and their main purpose was to put an end to the practice of players with dual citizenship being trained in France at high cost and then playing for the national teams of Central and North Africa.

Instead, emphasis was put on promoting “highly skilled” football players instead of “strong and sturdy” ones, as  French national team coach Laurent Blanc said referring to black players. Are such statements racist? What about French sociologist Stéphane Beaud's comments in an interview for Le Monde on “the African type”, “premature development” and “the shoulder breadth of black players”? Is a connection made between skin colour and style of play racist? Eventually, surveys carried out by the French Ministry of Sports and the FFF showed that stakeholders gave a categorical no to the quotas, and the issue was closed. Still, the affair exposed the public's sensitivity to anything linking football and racism, the risk of deviation and any real ability to counteract them.

Still, the main thing for us is that despite the hysteria whipped up by the British press regarding racism in Ukraine, we have not seen anything of the kind during Euro 2012.


Michel Wieviorka is a French sociologist, the director of the Centre d'Analyses et d'Interventions Sociologique (CADIS) at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He wrote the book Le Racisme: une introduction (1998).

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