Why Racism Will Never Leave Football

Football, often heralded as the beautiful game, has long been a reflection of society’s broader issues. Despite efforts to combat racism within the sport, it remains a persistent and troubling issue. This article explores why racism will never fully leave football, examining historical and contemporary examples, the role of social media and tabloids, and the impact on players.

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The Legacy Of John Barnes

John Barnes, one of the most talented footballers of his generation, joined Liverpool in 1987. His arrival was both celebrated and controversial. On the one hand, Barnes’ skill and flair on the pitch quickly made him a fan favorite. On the other hand, his presence also highlighted the deep-seated racism that existed within football and society at large.

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Barnes faced horrific racial abuse from fans, both on and off the pitch. Banana peels were thrown at him during games, and he endured relentless racial slurs. Despite this, he remained a professional and an inspiration, helping to change the attitudes of many Liverpool supporters. Barnes’ resilience and exceptional performances helped to challenge and slowly dismantle some of the prejudices held by fans. However, his experience also underscored how divided fans were and how pervasive racism was in the sport.

Racism In The 1980s

The 1980s were a particularly dark period for racism in football. Black players across the UK were routinely subjected to vile abuse from the stands. This era saw the rise of far-right groups like the National Front, who infiltrated football terraces to spread their hateful ideologies. Players such as Cyrille Regis, Viv Anderson, and Paul Canoville, alongside Barnes, were frequently targeted with racial abuse. The media at the time often downplayed or ignored the issue, further entrenching the problem.

The Persistence Of Racism Today

Fast forward to today, and while overt racist abuse in stadiums has decreased, racism has not disappeared. Instead, it has found a new platform: social media. Players like Bukayo Saka, Vinicius Jr., and Romelu Lukaku have all been subjected to appalling racist abuse online. Saka, in particular, faced a torrent of racial abuse following England’s defeat in the Euro 2020 final, highlighting how quickly and easily fans can target players with anonymity online.

Vinicius Jr., the Brazilian star, has also been subjected to racist chants and abuse from the stands, especially in Spain’s La Liga. Despite his undeniable talent and contribution to the game, he continues to face discrimination, showcasing how deeply ingrained these issues are.

Romelu Lukaku, another high-profile player, has been vocal about the racism he has encountered throughout his career, both in the Premier League and Serie A. His calls for stronger actions against racism have highlighted the insufficiencies in current measures to tackle this pervasive issue.

The Role Of Social Media

Social media platforms have become breeding grounds for racial abuse. The anonymity these platforms provide allows individuals to spew hatred without fear of repercussion. Despite public outcry and campaigns against online racism, tech companies have been criticized for not doing enough to prevent or punish offenders. The algorithms of these platforms often amplify negative and divisive content, further exacerbating the issue.

The Role Of UK Tabloids

UK tabloids have played a significant role in instigating and perpetuating racism in football. These media outlets often sensationalize stories and frame narratives in ways that fuel racial tensions. Instead of condemning racist behavior, tabloids sometimes amplify it by giving undue attention to controversial figures and statements. For instance, their coverage of players from diverse backgrounds can be biased and inflammatory, focusing on negative aspects and fueling stereotypes.


The tabloids’ portrayal of incidents involving black players often lacks nuance and empathy, which can incite further abuse from readers. When players like Raheem Sterling or Marcus Rashford are subjected to racist abuse, the tabloids’ coverage can sometimes exacerbate the situation rather than help to address the underlying issues. This sensationalism not only instigates further racism but also undermines efforts to create a more inclusive and respectful environment in football.

Directing National Failings On Black Players

A troubling pattern has emerged where the media and public direct national failings onto black players. This was starkly evident after England’s loss in the Euro 2020 final, where players like Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho, and Marcus Rashford, who missed penalties, were subjected to vile racist abuse. The media’s narrative often burdens these players, framing them as scapegoats for broader failures. This not only affects the players’ mental health but also perpetuates a cycle of racial discrimination and scapegoating.

Why Racism Persists

Racism in football persists for several reasons:

1.    Societal Reflection: Football reflects the society in which it exists. As long as racism is present in broader society, it will continue to manifest in football.
2.    Inadequate Sanctions: The punishments for racist behavior, whether in stadiums or online, are often seen as insufficient. Without severe repercussions, the deterrent effect is minimal.
3.    Lack of Education: There is a continual need for education about racism and its impacts. Many initiatives are underway, but more comprehensive and sustained efforts are required to change deeply rooted attitudes.
4.    Institutional Failings: Governing bodies and institutions have sometimes failed to take decisive action against racism, leading to a lack of trust in their commitment to eradicating it.
5.    Cultural and Historical Factors: Historical prejudices and cultural factors play a significant role in the persistence of racism. Changing these deeply ingrained beliefs takes time and concerted effort across generations.

Moving Forward

While it may seem bleak, there is hope. The courage of players like John Barnes, Bukayo Saka, Vinicius Jr., and Romelu Lukaku, who speak out against racism, is vital. Their resilience and advocacy are crucial in the fight against racism. Initiatives like “Kick It Out” and FIFA’s “Say No to Racism” campaigns are steps in the right direction, but they must be supported by robust actions and policies.

Football clubs, governing bodies, and social media companies must collaborate more effectively to combat racism. Education programs, stricter penalties for offenders, and greater support for victims are essential components of this fight.

In conclusion, while racism may never fully leave football, continued vigilance, education, and strong action can help mitigate its impact. The game can be a powerful platform for promoting equality and respect, reflecting the best of our societies rather than the worst.

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