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'I'm thick-skinned, but it makes me angry' - Irish football's racism problem

The42 looks into the prevalence of racist incidents in Irish football, and how they are dealt with.

Image: Mike Egerton

IRELAND HAS A racism problem. 

A 2018 study by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, titled “Being Black in the EU“, surveyed almost 6,000 migrants in 12 EU countries and concluded racism “remains a pervasive scourge” across the continent.

“Ireland is one of the countries that come out worse, frankly”, said the Agency’s director Michael O’Flaherty. 

Across the 12 countries, one in three said they experienced racist harassment in the five years before the survey was conducted. The rate in Ireland was 51%, well above average and the third-highest among those surveyed. The report explicitly compares Ireland’s rate with the UK’s, which was much lower at 21%. 

13% said they had experienced racist violence in Ireland, which is above the 5% average across the 12 surveyed countries. 

Like all social issues, racism is played out in ugly microcosm on football pitches across the country.

Show Racism The Red Card have recorded 16 reported racist incidents for the 2019/20 season so far, although these are only the cases that involved the FAI and so exclude incidents managed by affiliate leagues that did not go to appeal or involved any oversight by the FAI. 

Personal testimony suggests these figures are not representative of the extent of the problem in Irish football. 

Irish underage international Leo Gaxha – born in Kerry to Albanian parents and now living in England having signed a professional contract with Sheffield United – recently told Radio Kerry he was “shocked” when a local man told him to “go back to your own country” while back training in Tralee during the early weeks of the Covid-19 shutdown.

In 2018, four Sporting Ennistymon players from Traveller backgrounds quit the sport, citing a series of racial slurs during games and referees’ failures to take them seriously. 

And last year, Yanis Zinedine Boulmelh – born in Dublin to an Algerian father – was racially abused by an opponent during a game in the Leinster Senior League. The referee took no action during the game. 

“I brushed past him and what he said was, ‘Don’t touch me, you P**i b*****d”, recalls Yanis“He said it two more times while I was walking away from him.”

Yanis tweeted about the incident but removed it under advice from his club. After a subsequent chat with a couple of team-mates, however, he reposted it, and it then earned national attention.

“I did it to start this debate about racism in Irish football, Irish sport, and in Irish society. I think it’s a big, big problem in Irish football, without a doubt. I was on 98FM last year with Adrian Kennedy and Jeremy Dixon, and after I got off [air], they were taking phone calls and texts from people who had similar experiences. They flooded with text and calls. That highlighted there is a problem in Irish sport and in Irish football. 

“Apparently [the referee] put it into his report, but I believe if I didn’t put that tweet up, nothing would have happened. This has been happening to me since the age of eight, and every year. At school matches, club matches, all sorts. 

I was playing a game in Dublin once, and a group of lads started chanting ‘P**i, P**i, P**i’. I was 16 at the time. I’ve had friends who have been called all sorts of horrible things: P**i c**t, n****r, immigrant.’ I’m thick-skinned and I can take it. But it makes me angry. I get really, really angry, I wouldn’t say I get upset. But then again it shows their ignorance and their stupidity. I was born in Ireland. I’m Irish and I probably know more about Irish history and the Irish language than them.

“It’s ignorance and stupidity and I just feel angry. I always try to control myself: it’s better to control myself than to react.” 

FAI rules say any player guilty of racial abuse should be banned for a minimum of five games. 

The player who racially abused Yanis wasn’t suspended: instead he offered apologies both written and face-to-face, as was Yanis’ request. 

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“Racism needs to be stamped out, there needs to be more done by these Irish sporting bodies”, he continues. “There needs to be more education. Last year through football I remember doing a lot about mental health, so I believe they could introduce something to do with racism.

“I 100% believe that there should be workshops or lectures delivered to young players to explain why this is wrong. Something educational. A young kid can be fed anything and they’ll take it in.

“We get mental health [education], we get food and we get strength and conditioning, but we don’t get education on an important topic like racism.” 

The FAI’s Intercultural Programme does offer anti-racism education, and 5,724 young people took part in an anti-racism workshop through their schools in 2018, as part of a fortnight of action organised by the Uefa-supported Football Against Racism Europe. 

Sport Against Racism Ireland (SARI) have also run anti-discrimination workshops through football in primary schools. Having funded 80% of the programme for the last three years, the Department of Justice this year decided not to allocate any more funding to it.

“It was disappointing, and it was disappointing the Department of Justice didn’t reach out to the schools for first-hand testimony about its success”, says Perry Ogden, chair of SARI. “We were never given a clear explanation as to why they wouldn’t continue to fund it.” 

SARI were once affiliated with the FAI, but stopped working with the Association in 2015. Ogden says they made the decision due to concerns that funds that should have been granted to SARI were not forthcoming, and a lack of belief in the FAI’s handling of racism and discrimination in football.

Between 2008 and 2012, the FAI drew down €967,899 from the Department of Justice for integration projects and programmes, under the FAI’s Intercultural plan. Much of this money was to be disbursed to three groups – Show Racism the Red Card, Pavee Point, and SARI. Thus, from 2009 to 2013, SARI were granted a total of €40,068. 

The Department granted the FAI just €20,000 between 2012 and 2015, however, from which SARI got nothing in 2014 and €1,200 in 2015. 

“We felt they were totally ineffectual in terms of addressing racism and other forms of discrimination in football”, says Ogden of the FAI.

Ogden says they believed the FAI were not doing enough to educate and support referees around racist incidents during games, and says they did not always deal with incidents appropriately. 

He cites the failure to punish Shamrock Rovers over alleged racist chanting against Bohemains’ Joseph N’Do during a League of Ireland game in October 2009. Rovers were charged over the incident, but an FAI Disciplinary Committee subsequently ruled there was no conclusive evidence to warrant a sanction. SARI argued monkey chants were audible on TG4′s live coverage of the game. 

joseph-ndo Joseph N'do playing with Bohs in 2009. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

There is a realisation among some at the FAI now that improvements to their systems in this area are overdue, and that structural changes are needed to ensure racism and other forms of discrimination are dealt with effectively.

“Racism is an issue, a big issue”, says Ogden, “and I feel we have had a slight failure in leadership, both politically and, until recently, in football. We will have to see what happens in the future, I don’t want to make any judgements on the current FAI as they have all just come in, to take over a tricky situation.

“I think they need to grab the bull by horns and really address the situation. When it comes to racism in sport I think it should be zero-tolerance. I think it’s the only way to go forward. There can’t be any grey areas.”

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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