LONDON – So much still frustrates the man at the forefront of eradicating discrimination from English soccer.
While teams are more diverse, there remains a distinct lack of black and ethnic minority coaches and executives in positions of power.
The atmosphere at matches is not as toxic as 25 years ago, when Herman Ouseley laid the foundations for the Kick It Out organization, but abuse targeting players is increasingly moving from stands to the anonymity of the internet
And as a member of the House of Lords, the 73-year-old Ouseley is particularly wary of how outbursts from politicians can embolden fans still out to cause offense.
“People bring their prejudices into football,” Ouseley told The Associated Press, “because those prejudices are in society.”
Particularly alarming to the Kick It Out chairman is the fallout from former British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson making disparaging comparisons about women who wear face-covering veils.
“It won’t surprise me to see in the next few weeks … in grounds people are insulting Muslims and calling them bank robbers and post boxes,” Ouseley said, referencing Johnson’s comments. “That’s how people pick up on things. It forms itself into a chant and then suddenly it’s part of football.”
Ouseley thought far-right groups had left the game but is now troubled by a revival.
“They are trying to infiltrate and get back into football in their own covert ways,” Ouseley said. “To peddle their hate.”
The Football Lads Alliance has gained attention peddling anti-Muslim rhetoric, emerging in a volatile atmosphere after Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union, a campaign stirred by concerns about immigration.
“What football then has to do is … (ensure) the chaos that exists now in politics and may well for some time doesn’t actually infect football in the way that it’s looking as though some people would like it to happen,” Ouseley said.
Soccer’s powerful place in British society can also be harnessed to foster harmonious relations. The last three Professional Footballers’ Association players of the year were all Muslim: Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante and Mohamed Salah.
“It shows that football can move the dial in a way that is influential,” Ouseley said, “and push the politics back and out of football.”
Born in Guyana, Ouseley moved to London at the age of 11 and dedicated his professional life to making Britain a more inclusive society, challenging public institutions plagued by racism. A fan of London club Millwall, whose fans have a reputation for violence, Ouseley saw the need first-hand to turn his attentions to soccer in 1993.
“Twenty-five years ago football was a basket case with violence outside the grounds, inside the grounds,” Ouseley said. “On the pitch, black players were being abused and they were keeping their heads down because the only way to stay on the team, not have an adverse effect on your performance and also to keep your own dignity, … was just dealing with those problems in their own way.”
Players feel more emboldened to call out racism, while stiffer sanctions are imposed — in England at least — by criminal and soccer authorities. Part of the Premier League’s global appeal, making it the richest soccer competition, is the multicultural and multiracial nature of lineups.
“Historically owners of clubs felt the black players weren’t good enough to play football,” Ouseley said. “That’s now been proven (they can).”
But the Premier League opens with only two black managers among the 20: Chris Hughton at Brighton and Nuno Espirito Santo at Wolverhampton Wanderers. That stems from the lack of equality in boardrooms and the hiring process by clubs.
“We’ve got a situation now where some people feel that black coaches are not good enough,” Ouseley said. “They have to stop the process of just talking to friends and their contacts and being in a cozy network.”
DISCRIMINATION ON RISE
Kick It Out reports cataloging incidents of discrimination from the grassroots to the professional game highlight the ongoing and evolving nature of the problem. In the first half of last season alone, the incidents of discriminatory abuse rose 60 percent to 282. There were 109 incidents on social media alone.
Kick It Out is unsettled by Twitter allowing offensive content as long as it doesn’t threaten violence, asserting that by allowing “bigotry on their platform” the company is undermining efforts to make soccer an inclusive environment.
“We are trying to get all different mediums to recognize the responsibility they have for contributing to an environment … free from harassment,” Ouseley said. “We’ve got meetings. It’s got to be tackled. It’s got to be tackled at the government level.”
It highlights the ever-evolving nature of Ouseley’s role leading Kick It Out, and the need for such an organization, which is marking its 25th anniversary.
All while Ouseley himself still has to cope with facing prejudice.
“I’ve got a resilience that can deal with the prejudice and stereotypes and having experienced it virtually all my life and found ways to deal with it,” Ouseley said. “Very often you know something’s happening that is not the right thing. You make a determination is this is not the right place to challenge it. Sometimes you make a decision, well it’s not worth it, and other times you might want to take it on. It exists.”