The head of Kick It Out, a leading UK organization that works to tackle discrimination in professional and grassroots football, believes racism in the sport is “worse now than it was five years ago.”
Sanjay Bhandari, who took over the position in September, says complacency from fans and governing bodies could allow football to regress even further.
According to the organization, reports of discrimination rose by 32% in 2018/19 compared to the previous season.
Racism remains the most common form of discrimination and has risen “alarmingly,” Kick It Out says, with reports increasing by 43%.
“Football is very different to what it was in the 1970s, racism is not the endemic thing that it was in the 1970s,” Bhandari tells Darren Lewis.
“Over a 40, 50 year period? We’ve definitely [made progress]. But it’s worse than it was five years ago, and it’s worse than it was seven years ago.
“So I’d say we used to be up there,” he says, gesturing to the peak on an imaginary graph. “It’s come down and now it’s bubbling up again.
“So our challenge is we’ve got to avoid the complacency of not going back to what it was in the 70s and 80s and thinking that: ‘Don’t worry, we never can do that’ – we could.”
Kick It Out is not without its critics.
The organization has no power to impose sanctions on individuals or groups found guilty of racism at football matches and there was confusion when the Premier League last year decided to launch its own campaign – ‘No Room for Racism’ – which clashed with Kick It Out’s 25th anniversary.
It’s also been suggested that the organization would be better served with a former black professional footballer at its head. However, Bhandari says his experiences as an ethnic minority fan in the 1990s allows him to put himself in the players’ shoes.
“I’ve been at games going way back, 30-plus years, where you were hearing the kind of chants about people of my color,” he recalls. “I’d rather be a P*** than a ‘Jock’ I remember at Euro 96 in the England-Scotland game.
“In a few games at Wembley, elsewhere, following my team around the country, where I’d get singled out because I was often the only Asian person in a crowd of white people – my friends go into a game and you’d be singled out.
“I remember coming out of the cup final many years ago and a bunch of fans throwing their coffee over me and throwing their chicken dinner over me because they were upset that we’d won and they’d lost.
“So I can have empathy with the feelings the players would have. What I don’t have is 30,000 people or 5,000 people – however many people it is doing that – and having that feeling, so I don’t have that feeling that the England players would have had in Bulgaria.”
Kick it Out as well FIFA, UEFA and other national federations have received criticism for what many perceive to be inaction in the face of a rise in racism.
But Bhandari believes the problems within football are also reflective of a society that has seen a rise in hate crimes since the ‘Brexit’ vote in 2016.
According to UK government statistics, police recorded crime figures in England and Wales showed in 2018/19 that there were 103,379 offences “where one or more of the central monitored hate crime strands were deemed to be a motivating factor.”
That was 10% higher than in 2017/18.
“The intentions are all clear and I don’t doubt those intentions, everyone seems to me very genuine that they want to continue this fight and to win this fight,” says Bhandari of the efforts to combat racism.
“I can see that it’s frustrating that every time there’s an incident, that’s taken as evidence that we’re not doing enough,” added Bhandari. “Well, actually, the reality is, how does that correlate with the rise in hate crime? Because hate crime happens across the country.
“If there’s a terrorist incident, I’ll be careful the next day going on the tube because someone’s gonna say something to me and I’ll put my headphones in because I know someone’s going to say something to me.
“People feel emboldened to express racist views, which they maybe would not have expressed about 10 years ago. You’ve got a rise in hate crime more generally because you’ve got this rise in tension – and that’s being reflected in football as it is elsewhere.”