From parks to Premier League: the shocking scale of racism in English football

A special investigation into the racism crisis uncovers anger, despair and a warning that there will be an explosion unless the problem is tackled

He was too shocked to talk, Sotirios Siminas says as he remembers trying to find out why one of his players was in tears at the end of a game that exposed the extent of the racism infecting the heart and soul of English football. Siminas, who coaches one of the under-12 boys teams at AFC Urmston Meadowside, in Manchester, can feel the anger rising. Six months on from that unpleasant Sunday morning, it is not easy listening to him explain what had happened to one of the children in his care. The other boys told us that he was subjected to vile abuse by the opposition players, Siminas says. He was called a Paki on their way off the pitch. The racial abuse was too much for Siminas to bear. He went over to talk to the other teams coach and defend his player. Yet the response shocked him. The other coach refused to accept there had been any abuse. All he could do was walk away and go home. Because there were kids involved we didnt want it to escalate, Siminas says. We left.

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That dismissive attitude will only surprise anyone who has never been on the end of it. A day after speaking to Siminas, I head to Ferndale Community Sports Centre in south London to meet Dr Colin King and Wallace Hermitt, veterans of the grassroots game and the leading figures at the Black and Asian Coaches Association (BACA), and talk about whether the bad old days are on the way back. We sit in a small office, no more than a two-minute walk from Brixton tube station, and King and Hermitt chuckle with weary cynicism when I struggle to make sense of a kid at under-12 level being attacked because of his Asian heritage.

Hermitt has heard it all before. Is that really a shock to the system? he says. I once took a team over to Bermondsey in the 90s. All we hear is: Coons black cunts. I go over to the parents and its: What do you want me to say, you black cunt. We get back in the van and I took the kids home. Thats their children. Thats their socialisation.

Powerless in a world where it is my word against yours, Siminas was left to concentrate on convincing a traumatised little boy not to walk away from the local pitches in Manchester. The world kept turning until, three weeks later, something happened a long way from Urmston in every sense. Manchester City travelled to Chelsea in the Premier League and footage posted on social media showed a home fan allegedly subjecting Raheem Sterling to racist abuse.

A week earlier a Tottenham supporter had thrown a banana skin at Arsenals Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang during the north London derby. Racism was on the agenda again and Sterling spoke up the morning after Citys 2-0 defeat at Chelsea, telling his millions of Instagram followers that the media had fuelled racism with portrayal of black footballers. The England international took control of the debate with one post on social media, bypassing the traditional routes to spread his message and forensically take apart the idea that racism is a problem only in faraway eastern European countries.

Yet Sterlings intervention has not slowed the flow of abuse. Quite the opposite, in fact, given how much racism has been in the news since the turn of the year.

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A banana skin thrown by a Tottenham supporter at Arsenals Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Photograph: Ian Kington/AFP/Getty Images

In February a West Ham fan allegedly shouted Islamaphobic abuse at Mohamed Salah at the London Stadium, and on Thursday the Liverpool striker was the target of chants by Chelsea supporters describing him as a bomber. Also on Thursday a video on social media appeared to show an Arsenal fan racially abusing Napolis Kalidou Koulibaly.

A Burnley supporter has been charged with a racially aggravated offence after allegedly aiming abuse at Brightons Gatan Bong, a Cameroon international. Millwall have been charged by the Football Association after a section of their fans allegedly used a term derogatory to the Asian community during their FA Cup win over Everton.

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Homophobic chanting remains an issue at Brighton games, Huddersfield Towns Phillip Billing has received racist abuse on social media, Peter Beardsley has been charged by the FA with three counts of using racist language to players in his former job as Newcastle United Under-23s coach (he denies the allegations and says he is not a racist) and in the womens game Sophie Jones, the former Sheffield United player, quit the sport in protest after being found guilty by the Football Association of racially abusing Tottenham Hotspurs Rene Hector and banned for five games.

In November Kick It Out, footballs anti-discrimination organisation, reported an 11% rise in reports of discriminatory abuse last season. The organisation received 520 complaints through its anonymised reporting system, with racism up by 22% and homophobia by 9%, and it is likely the figures will rise again this year. Worryingly the statistics do not take into account unreported allegations of abuse, raising the possibility that the situation is worse than Kick It Outs figures suggest.

It is not just footballs problem. When a couple of Southampton fans allegedly chant about the Holocaust during a game against Tottenham, it comes at a time when antisemitism in the United Kingdom is on the rise. When a fan screams that Salah is a terrorist cunt, it comes at a time when Islamophobia has entered the mainstream. Nobody transforms into a racist after walking into a football stadium. They bring their views in from outside, where societys divides have been exposed by austerity, knife crime, a broken political system and the Brexit debate. Britain feels angrier than ever.

Manchester
Manchester Citys Raheem Sterling is allegedly subjected to abuse at Stamford Bridge. Photograph: Michael Zemanek/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

Siminas says that his car, which had Greek number plates, was vandalised after the EU referendum. Hate crime has increased in the past three years and the splintering of society has left room for racist views to emerge again. Without a doubt racism exists in football because it exists in society, Tajean Hutton, Kick It Outs grassroots officer, says. Its never been eradicated or reduced.

Hutton runs AFC Wembley, a local club in north-west London, alongside his day job and is well placed to discuss the anger brewing within marginalised communities. He points out that if football is a pyramid structure then it follows that discrimination will be even more rife at the bottom of the game. His mission is to give a voice to the powerless and to challenge a system that means reports of abuse at the grassroots level often take too long to be properly investigated by county FAs.

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That aim is complicated by concerns within Kick It Out that its days are numbered. The organisation is struggling as it looks to replace Herman Ouseley, its chair since its inception in 1993, and is worried as it awaits the outcome of an investigation by the Charity Commission, which opened a regulatory compliance case after a group of former employees complained that Kick It Outs trustees and senior management have not fostered an environment where staff can comfortably raise workplace concerns.

Kick It Out, funded by the FA, Premier League, EFL and Professional Footballers Association, who each have a trustee on the board, fears that the investigation threatens its existence. There was disquiet when the Premier League announced its own initiative, No Room For Racism, last month.

A Premier League source insists the plan is not to replace Kick It Out with its own anti-discrimination body. The message is that the league has responded to calls for it to be more visible in the wake of the Aubameyang and Sterling incidents.

Yet Kick It Out, which received 648,948 in core funding last season, is concerned that funding will be withdrawn when the report is released. There is indignation at suggestions it has failed if racism still exists in 2019. It employs 17 people and is crying out for more money.

Some people within our organisation for example, some of our trustees may feel that because we have been given the opportunity to have an office and personalised email addresses and we are in FA and Premier League boardrooms, that thats support, Hutton says. A lot of these people allow us to be in these environments or give us support to tick a box.

At the same time there is an awareness that Kick It Out struggles to gain respect at grassroots level. The general public feels that Kick It Out is a tokenistic organisation, Hutton says. The issue we have now is silence, which becomes more damaging than speaking up.

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At the time of writing Kick It Out has received 80 reports of abuse at grassroots level this season. Hutton winces at that figure because it means victims are staying quiet. The suggestion is that a lack of diversity on the 46 county FA boards means complaints will not be treated with empathy and dealt with properly.

At my own club I still dont feel that reporting works, Hutton says. I can report an incident and it can be given a leeway of up to six months to be concluded. Within those six months the perpetrator has an opportunity to discriminate against how many other kids? There are people who look like me and do the same [report abuse] nationwide.

Dr
Dr Colin King, a veteran of the grassroots game and a leading figure at the Black and Asian Coaches Association, at Dulwich sports ground, London. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

British society is not designed to be inclusive. At the very core of this country, in places of authority, we are not designed to be inclusive. Its class and hierarchy and its not limited to football. Its about women being admin assistants instead of CEOs. Black people serving instead of giving the PowerPoint. We are very intelligent in how we market ourselves as embracing gay people and Asian people, but when you go to the offices where decisions are made its not that way.

Huttons frustration is clear. You have people telling the community what they need instead of asking what they want. Its a lack of empathy.

Were shattered. Were dead

The sense of numbness is captured at Ferndale where, as the skies darken and the expensive adult leagues kick in, King surveys the pitches and lets out a sad sigh. We are very divisive now in terms of how we play, he says. Look out there now. Its just white men playing. There is one black player out there now. Four pitches. One black guy. This is what gets me mad about this place. Its all white men out there tonight. They have no black friends?

This is how segregated we are becoming in football. This is Brixton. People wont believe that. But its perpetuated by the system. These guys can afford how much it is to play out there. It mirrors society. More black people in prison, more black people in mental health institutions, more in the criminal justice system.

King and Hermitt rule Ferndale while coaching children earlier in the evening. Hermitt is completely in charge as he admonishes a young boy for his attitude. You have to play, he says, ignoring the kids complaints about being kicked by an opponent.

It can sound macho but Hermitt believes that a black player will have to be tough to survive park football. There has not been a high-profile black referee since Uriah Rennie quit in 2009 and while the FA had hoped that 10% of its officials would be BAME by 2016, the numbers fall short of that.

I ended up getting someone to come and film the games, Hermitt says. You see away games where youre better than the home team but you lose because of a biased referee. You complain to the county FA but its like going to the Police Complaints Commission. Why bother?

Look at the balance of the teams between white and black at non-league. See who wins based on the officiating. Ill foul him free-kick! He fouls me play on! Ref? Bit of equality here? Yellow card! One more of that and youre off.

I ask Hermitt if he ever reports anything to Kick It Out. Waste of time, he responds. What can they do?

King chimes in. Im a qualified referee and I wouldnt do it any more. Ive had white teams chase me out the ground looking to fight me. Ive got to get to my car. But its not just about the n-word. Its about white teams not shaking your hand or exchanging shirts. They dont want to be in the same space. You can see the parents dont want to be around black players.

There is a quiet rage to King, who lets his frustrations pour out when I ask whether the fight for equality has taken a toll on him and Hermitt. Were shattered, he says. Were dead. They dont want to work with people like us. Ive been told that to my face, people at the county FAs saying they dont want to work with me and Wallace.

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Im part of the county structure and when I go they dont want to talk about race equality. If you have a privilege you dont want it taken away and shared with someone else. Theres a threat to your national identity, your status, to who you are. Theres a patronage to handing power down to people who look like you.

The FA says discrimination in any form is unacceptable and a spokesman said: When it takes place in football, we work in partnership with clubs, leagues, players, campaign groups and fans, to tackle the issue together. The FA has funded two extra grassroots officers, based at Kick It Out, who work directly with our county FA network as well as grassroots clubs and community groups, partly to encourage and raise awareness of reporting discrimination channels.

Additionally, we have a robust system in place to ensure aggravated breaches of discrimination are reported by the county FAs to the FA, who oversee all discrimination cases and take the appropriate steps. We strongly condemn all forms of discrimination and encourage all fans and participants who believe that they have been the subject of, or witness to, discriminatory abuse to report it through the appropriate channels: the FA, our county FA network or via our partners at Kick It Out.

The discussion with Hermitt and King turns to the portrayal of black players in the media. There is an insidious effect to praising Manchester Uniteds Paul Pogba for his pace and power instead of his vision and skill. It is framed as a compliment, but in reality is just a more polite way of calling a black player a beast in other words, making him seem less human.

A former black player tells me his non-league manager stuck him on the right wing because of an assumption that he was fast. The player reckoned he had the nous to play in central midfield and if we are incapable of realising the danger posed by the stereotypes that made his manager think otherwise, perhaps it is because of the lack of BAME representation in the English media.

The
The former West Bromwich Albion manager Darren Moore, left, and Sol Campbell, the manager of Macclesfield Town. Photograph: Getty Images and Rex Shutterstock

Language informs our thinking. Minorities are forced to stay in their lane, unconscious bias closes minds and the best example of a glass ceiling is the lack of BAME coaches in the professional game. Last year the League Managers Association published a report stating less than 8% of head coaches in the 92 teams of the Football League were BAME and aspiring coaches despaired when Darren Moore, who is black, lost his job as West Bromwich Albions manager.

West Brom were fourth in the Championship and Moores sacking has been a hot topic among BACAs members. Darren Moore is somebody who represents us, King says. But he epitomised something that is really dangerous too. If he fails as a manager, he fails as a black manager, not on an individual level. Then it makes it harder for clubs like West Brom to employ black managers. The outcome is we all have a go at West Brom.

Lets talk about the politics of whiteness and the privilege that white managers have to lose a job and not be accountable to the white race. White managers mess up left, right and centre. They get another job.

King compares Sol Campbell starting his managerial career at the bottom of League Two with Macclesfield Town with Steven Gerrard getting the Rangers job and Frank Lampard starting at Derby County. Hermitt cuts in to say that black managers always seem to get the worst jobs and they both worry about Chris Powell, struggling with Southend United in League One. Powell is sacked a week later.

Some people see no unconscious bias in boardrooms. No wonder shut up and get on with it has become a common phrase at grassroots level. We dont see it as racism, King says. We think its what we deserve. The reason black players keep dealing with racial abuse is because its fucked them up so badly.

The psychological abuse me and Wallace have suffered has silenced us. Its to stop the abuse. Its very hard to talk about it because people feel so abused by the system. When they do talk about it they have to relive it, report it and act it out knowing that they could be seen as more trouble than the person who perpetrated it.

You think you wont be heard. Someone comes down, you tell them what happened, they say thats not racism. What the fuck did you ask me for then?

Kings point is that racism can take subtle forms and the danger is falling into the trap of not empathising with the victim when the abuse is not immediately obvious.

There is a similar vibe in the stands. Last month there was outrage when Englands black players were targeted with monkey chants in Montenegro. Sterling stepped up again, speaking out and using social media to hit back, and for a brief moment it was possible for English football to occupy the moral high ground.

Not for too long, however, bearing in mind Gareth Southgates post-match remark that we have the same issue in our country. Englands manager has not hesitated to raise some uncomfortable points and his criticism was backed up by what happened after Juventuss Moise Kean stood up to abuse from Cagliari fans. Derby, Northampton and Wigan reported incidents of racial abuse four days after Kean made his stand, while Crystal Palaces Wilfried Zaha called out an online message branding him a diving monkey last weekend.

Danny
Danny Rose and Ross Barkley during the match in Montenegro where Englands black players were targeted with monkey chants. Photograph: Michael Zemanek/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

It is no surprise that Danny Rose, the Tottenham and England left-back, has said that he cannot wait to retire from football because of his disgust at the racism blighting the game. Even if it is not as intense as in Montenegro, it still exists in our grounds. Nor are black players the only target. It is there in the antisemitism when Tottenham play Arsenal, Chelsea or West Ham. It was there when I heard a West Ham fan bellow Gook at Tottenhams Son Heung-min at the London Stadium last October. Someone else called the South Korean a Chink and shoved another fan down two rows of seats after being asked to stop using abusive language. Speaking up is a risk, even when done in the relative safety of social media. In February a QPR fan tweeted footage of alleged racial abuse by a Leeds United fan at Loftus Road and ended up deactivating his account after being labelled a grass and a snitch.

There are calls for the FA to send out firmer messages. There is a feeling that punishments for racism are not strong enough, an argument that the only way to stop the abuse on and off the pitch is to hit clubs with points deductions and stadium closures.

However, many conversations come back to a single topic: education. Some clubs are leading the way, with Chelsea winning plaudits for their attempts to tackle antisemitism and the Premier League keen to point to its community programmes, and it is clear that simply banning supporters is only pushing the problem away. It has to be deeper, Hutton says. The guys racist friends will still be at the club. His ideology is passed down to his kids.

The political climate has had an impact

With that in mind I head to Liverpool in search of togetherness. I make my way to the Liverpool Mosque and Islamic Institute, a 20-minute drive from Anfield, and see people from different walks of life coming together. Outside the mosque there are countless boxes of food, to be donated to the citys foodbanks, and spirits are high inside.

Ian Byrne, co-founder of the Fans Supporting Foodbanks campaign, is from Spirit of Shankly, a Liverpool fan group. Hunger doesnt discriminate, says Byrne, who is joined by Dave Kelly, an Evertonian and a representative of Blue Union, and John Ratomski, the chairman of the West Ham United Independent Supporters Association.

Ratomski wants to apologise to the Muslim community after the alleged abuse Salah suffered at West Ham. He gives Shafiqur Rahman a West Ham scarf and the Imam wears it while he leads Friday afternoon prayers, even though he is a Liverpool fan and friends with Sadio Man, who often prays at this mosque with Salah.

The worshippers thank Ratomski afterwards. We have something in common, Rahman says. Away from football we are all human beings.

Yet these are worrying times for Muslims. A woman tells me that her son faces constant racial abuse at school and Rahman says that he hopes working with Fans Supporting Foodbanks will help to alter perceptions of Islam. We want to meet the Liverpool community, to show Muslims are part of the community, he says. Our religion doesnt mean we cant work together. These projects are not just for Muslims. We do this a lot for the homeless.

Imam
Imam Shafiqur Rahman, wearing a West Ham United scarf, talks with worshippers at Liverpool Mosque and Islamic Institute. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Yet he is worried about the anti-Muslim rhetoric in Britain. We represent the mosque but we have a large congregation. If they were to do something the whole mosque gets a bad name. People need to come into mosques more. Players come here and on a lot of occasions we have English fans waiting outside. We tell them to come inside and meet the players after our prayers. They feel they arent welcome, but education would tell them they are allowed to wait inside.

I leave Liverpool feeling upbeat, but the Salah incident did not happen in a vacuum. It happened in a country where Muslims are demonised in sections of the media and society. Theres been a rise in hate crimes since the Brexit vote, Osei Sankofa, Kick It Outs education officer, says. Before those acts theres a thought that occurs first. The political climate has had an impact. We made this decision, we want our independence which is great. Thats also showing itself to be creating a very hostile environment for a lot of people.

Football has to be wary of the far-right. Although it is a far cry from the days when the National Front would try to recruit supporters outside grounds, there is the thorny topic of the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, a group condemned by anti-racism campaigners and accused of spreading Islamophobia.

Matthew Collins of Hope Not Hate believes that backing for the DFLA, which has received support from Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League, is dwindling. Yet the DFLA does hold an appeal. West Ham have a youth coach, Mark Phillips, who went on a DFLA march last October and the group took part in a pro-Brexit rally outside parliament last month. This is no time to be complacent.

A week after the visit to Liverpool, 50 people were killed during the attack on the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. It is a reminder that words matter.

I speak to Amjid Khazir later that day. He has worked to tackle prejudice and Islamic radicalisation in Middlesbrough since his uncle Mohammed Zabir, a taxi driver, died of a heart attack in 2011, a month after being attacked by a drunk passenger. Khazir set up Media Cultured, a company that promotes integration, and last year helped to set up Boro Fusion, which is linked to the Football Supporters Federations Fans for Diversity campaign.

Boro Fusion is the first BAME supporter club set up for Middlesbrough, Khazir says. I worked closely with the club on the back of an event that happened at a Birmingham game a couple of years ago, where a couple of Middlesbrough fans had torn up copies of the Quran. They sang: Eff you and your holy book.

The club were taken aback by the event and thought they should speak to a local Muslim. Weve delivered sessions to the club around extremism. Weve done sessions for the first team. Fusion works around Media Cultured. It helps us tackle prejudice and get out in the community.

Education fosters inclusivity. So does talking. At the Football Supporters Federation Anwar Uddin, a former Dagenham & Redbridge defender, often meets with fans guilty of discriminatory behaviour. He wants to reach them. It does not always work, but he remembers meeting one so appalled at his own behaviour that he broke down in tears.

There are reasons to be hopeful. Yet changing deepened attitudes is not straightforward. Sankofa, a former Charlton Athletic defender, remembers going on loan to Bristol City in 2006 and seeing bananas placed under the locker of a fellow black player in the changing room. He has trained at a club where discrimination took on a competitive edge: instead of constituting a sackable offence, the policy was that players who came up with racist banter in the dressing room would receive a 2 reward.

I feel like we are a ticking timebomb

It is easy to push people into a corner and maintain a veil of innocence. Dave Cumberbatch, the only black member of staff on Haringey Boroughs coaching team, knows the feeling of isolation. When we go to away matches we turn up in a Haringey Borough van, he says. The players go through, the managers go through, and there were two or three times last year when I got stopped at the door. They said: Wheres your pass? I said: Im with them. They said: No, no, you need a pass. Im thinking Wait a minute

It happened two or three times and it became a bit of a standing joke. I was thinking: Wow, its still out there. Subconscious racism. I got quite upset with one guy and he said: You could be anyone, couldnt you? Im thinking all my colleagues have just walked in in front of you, with the same gear and the Haringey Borough logo, and they were white. And you stop me at the door.

Then there was the trouble after a Haringey away game last season. One of the players was there with his girlfriend, Cumberbatch says. After the game she was allegedly subjected to heavy racial abuse from supporters of the other club in the car park. She came out crying and all the players ran down there. It got a bit messy. The woman was heavily pregnant and people were saying: We hope your baby dies.

It needs a top player to do something on the day. We need a player to stop the game right there. We just shut up. We worry people will ask if we really heard something. If I put my head above the parapet, will it stop me progressing in the game? Will people think youre just playing the race card?

Troy Townsend, Kick It Outs development officer and the father of Andros Townsend, wants to see change in the corridors of power. Far too many in the county FAs at the higher level are reflective of the hierarchy of the game, he says. Everyone says all they are about is collecting money through petty fines. Not putting a number on your teamsheet or something. Do that, you get fined instantly. Report discrimination, it takes a lifetime.

Troy
Troy Townsend, Kick It Outs development officer and the father of Andros Townsend. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Townsend talks about taking an under-17 side off the pitch. And we get chucked out the cup for failing to complete the game, he says. We go to a hearing six weeks later. No action against us.

He says the other team continued in the cup. By the way I had to agree to the charge, he continues. It was not completing the game, so I had to agree to that and give my mitigating circumstances. They accepted those but also asked why we didnt complete the game. I said it was the only option available to me because I wanted a personal hearing. They homed in on the fact I ticked the box. I am sure that would be the charge levelled at any team who walked off at the highest level.

Townsend considers whether football needs a figure like Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player ostracised from his sport for kneeling during the American national anthem. I wouldnt be surprised if a movement came out of the next incident, he says. I think we are close to players taking control. If there are one or two more high-profile incidents this season I think we are on the cusp of it. Are we close to a team walking off a pitch? I think we might be.

The players are frustrated. They dont feel protected. I dont think the game empowers the players enough to tell them that its dealing with these situations. We are in a challenging period in society and football has to take some initiative because it has a powerful brand. If it sent out powerful messages it can influence whats happening.

Whats happening is not just something for football to resolve. Corrosive tribalism is present in parliament, on the streets, in the media and online.

Theres a massive divide in this country, Townsend says. Id like to say its right down the middle but its all over the place. Sometimes when we talk publicly we talk them and us. We feed the narrative by almost making it like that. But thats only because its been them and us for years. Its made that way by them.

I am hearing too many stories where people are jacking it in at grassroots. That level is the wild, wild west. If we dont sort out that level something horrendous is going to happen soon. I feel like we are a ticking time bomb. When that explosion comes everyone will be shocked and the game will be under the microscope.

Townsends closing remarks are a reminder that this is about more than Sterling and his one-man stand after the incident at Chelsea. It runs deeper than the high-profile cases. We fooled ourselves into thinking that the fight against racism was over, but the truth is it never went away.

People like Sotirios Siminas are crying out for help. All they want is for someone to listen. A few weeks after our first conversation, however, Siminas gets in touch to say that he has been told there is insufficient evidence to take his complaint forward.

The experience has drained him. When Siminas coaches, he feels that he is contributing to society. Now, deflated and disheartened, he is not sure if he will be back on those pitches next season.

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