Part of the Problem
Updated: Jun 13, 2020
Arsène Wenger aka the Professor former Arsenal FC Manager
Arsène Wenger has just recently said that there is no racism within the game of football. It is necessary to make that distinction. He means to say when it comes to picking players for a team, that actual setup of the team and finally the playing. That distinction is important so that we do not miss the mark on his statement.
His statement, however, is false.
Arsène Wenger, you should rightfully be respected for your success, longevity and impact in the game. However, on this, you are not just sorely wrong, you are literally the EXACT problem we are combatting ; not just the people who actively promote discriminatory and prejudice actions and initiatives but those that do so passively, those that deny the prejudice, those that ignore the discrimination.
This is either willfully or woefully ignorant. Giving Wenger benefit of the doubt, we will say woefully. There is a French saying that is quite applicable here : “When you don’t know, don’t talk.” Unfortunately, it seems that the French manager, known as the Professor, might not know as much and it is disheartening considering his position within FIFA as Head of Global Football Development. His brilliance, his travels, his experience perhaps qualify him for the role— although some would debate it citing the latter half of his time at Arsenal— but proclaiming racism dead within the confines of team selection and recruitment is blind at best and otherwise irresponsible, ignorant, unhelpful, and quite dangerous at worse.
To paint the picture : Wenger, someone in the demographic the least likely to suffer from racism or even acknowledge it, tells us that there is no racism in football. Or in the "essence" of football. Sure, that's true. We can say that about anything, any sport. There is no racism in kicking a ball, in running, in passing, in shooting. Absolutely true. We can say that for football the same way we can say a knife is not a weapon ; it only depends on the person using it. Well, the people holding the beautiful game in the palm of their hands— presidents, directors, executives, big-name players and coaches— have, for the most part, up until recently, ignored, condoned and promoted prejudice initiatives and sentiments and this is just another example.
Lilian Thuram - The type of voice we need
This is not the first time Wenger has made painfully ignorant remarks. In 2011 after Laurent Blanc suggested limiting the number of Arab and black players in French national youth centers, Wenger said “I personally believe that France is not a racist country at all. The most popular personality in France is [the black former tennis player] Yannick Noah. The captain of the French national team is [Malian-born] Alou Diarra.” (The Guardian).
He has an influential position in world football with his role in FIFA but also thanks to his legendary stature, but at this moment in time, he is not the person we need speaking and his inability to see that or to see the harm his words cause is a significant part of the problem.
Wenger recently made comments on the current societal climate in relation to the game of football on beIN Sports' Keys & Gray Show.
Nearly every possible unhelpful reaction a (white) person could have is present :
Denying the existence of racism : “I would say football is by essence anti-racist. Why? Because you know that no matter if you’re the son of the King of England or if you’re black or white or red – if you’re good you play.”(Evening Standard) (2020)
Blindingly declaring one’s own allyship : “Personally, I fight for the merit," he added. "I played games in England with people from 11 different countries. Honestly, after the game when I was told I didn’t even know because I just chose the players because of their quality.” (Evening Standard) (2020)
Giving examples of successes against racism but not acknowledging the racism, thereby discrediting the people involved and the struggle : “I had former players like Patrick Vieira, who is [doing] a fantastic job in Nice. "Sol Campbell is a manager [of Southend United] – I hope he will make it at the top level and I heard he’s doing very good work.”(Evening Standard) (2020)
Making the conversation about yourself : “It’s a kind of humiliation to say you just got this position because of where you’re from.”(Evening Standard) (2020)
Celebrating the supposed progress : "So you want people to give the same chances to everybody, no matter where you’re from or how you look, but as well, not to create another discrimination because of artificial solutions you want to find.”(Evening Standard) (2020)
Touting the threats of actions taken to combat racism, prejudice and discrimnation without providing an actual solution : “In France we created the concept of positive discrimination but that means you give positions to people because they’re not given enough chances – but this is also discrimination because people who are better may not get the job.”(Evening Standard) (2020)
Stating that perhaps there is racism (when asked about black players and coaches being denied chances in England) : “Maybe, that’s what I hear. If it is like that it’s a shame.”(Evening Standard) (2020)
Lilian Thuram former France national team player, former Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona defender, is an activist who fights against racist and social injustice. That is the kind of voice we need right now.
A painfully small and disturbing list of people who have dropped the ball
These are a select FEW of the many racist, prejudice, discriminatory, and inflammatory events regarding soccer.
April 2, 2019 Moise Kean was racially abused by Cagliari fans. He received little support from Bonucci and Allegri
Black players are still pigeonholed into roles surrounding power, strength and speed. How often do we hear a commentator refer to a black player as “powerful”, “a beast”, “an animal”, or “strong”? And how many times are white players called “clever”, “creative”, “intelligent”, “disciplined”? Quite a few of these commentators were (or are) former coaches. It stands to reason that the prejudice they have today, they also had when they were (are) coaching.
In 2018, John Mills, Charles Ing, Tom Markham and Fergus Guppy researched skin tone in relation to positional play and observed that “players of a lighter skin tone primarily occupying the positions of goalkeeper, central midfielder and attacking midfielder”. (Guppy, Ing, Markham, Mills).
Maybe Wenger really NEVER was prejudice and maybe he NEVER encountered anyone in football who was, but there is something known as unconscious bias.
Sadio Mané, Samuel Eto'o, N'Golo Kanté, Yaya Touré, Didier Drogba. When discussing black players, their physical attributes are mentioned much more often than any positive mental attributes. White players, however, are frequently referred to as clever, creative, intelligent or disciplined.
Now, I would like to address this on a personal note.
So, full disclosure, I am a young black coach who has had the chance to travel to various countries for football (France, USA, Portugal, Brazil).
Let me say this : when the cameras are not around, there is a lot more said and done than we will EVER know. Just because we do not know, does not mean it did not happen. Arsène Wenger maybe did not observe these things or even, like many, perhaps did not acknowledge or it did not understand what he was witnessing but that does not mean it did not happen. It happens in the locker room, it happens in the board room, it happens in meetings, it happens on the training pitch. It happens everywhere. A player or a coach or anyone involved will often not feel in a secure position that he or she could combat it and so it continues. I have seen this.
I, to my shame, have been in that situation. In that situation where something wrong was said or done and I knew it but I did not stand up to fight it. Maybe Wenger has heard some of these things, maybe he hasn’t, maybe he has forgotten, maybe he didn’t notice.
Just a few of the comments I received in France in a football setting as a coach (all said by white men with no other black coaches around). This was taken from just one year.
“Did you just come back from vacation? You’ve got a bit of a tan there?” (twice)
“This is our Django.”
“And his big, black sexual expletive”
“I have never seen a black man that doesn’t run fast”
Being the lone person to decry Antoine Griezmann’s blackface
Would they have been willing to say this with more black people around? Can any of us honestly answer that affirmatively without a shadow of a doubt?
And if they say that around one black person what happens when there are none?
Here is one comment that was not racist but actually quite insightful. The first coach’s name has been changed.
“Patrice is the stereotype of the black man that doesn’t work hard whereas Milton is the black man that does.”
This is a story that many, non-white ethnicities and women, as well, will recognize. We must work harder than our white male counterparts to achieve the same recognition and respect. I am sure that must be incomprehensible for someone who has never been in that position and refuses to take the time, guilt, pain, shame and discomfort necessary to acknowledge it but it’s the truth. If a black man works less than his colleagues, it is seen as a common characteristic among people who look like him. If he works harder, it is a surprising exploit. If we flip this for a white man, when he is lazy no one else is implicated in his failure. If he is a hard worker, he is a hard worker. Period. Not a hard worker for a white man. Just a hard worker.
That is an issue in the proverbial pipeline, the system the provides the highest levels with coaches and players. How can there be more of us at the top if we are being stymied on our way up?
In 2017 in England, where Wenger spent the majority of his career, research by the Sports People's Think Tank (SPTT) “highlighted the scale of the inequality on the touchline, revealing only 22 out of 482 senior frontline coaching positions are held by people from the BAME community.”
“Nine of the 22 (41%), are employed at just four clubs - Brighton, Crystal Palace, Reading, and Queens Park Rangers.”
In the report, coaches were not just managers but the other coaches involved in a significant part of the managerial and coaching duties.
Brighton Hove and Albion have since sacked their black manager Chris Hughton.
BAME footballers make up over 25% of all professional players in England, there are just six BAME managers across the 92 league clubs in England and Wales.
This research was done in 2017. Things are not looking much better three years on.
(BAME British abbreviation : black, Asian and minority ethnic).
In France, there are 20 Ligue 1 clubs. 1 black manager, former Arsène Wenger player, Patrick Vieira.
In Ligue 2 there are two: Franck Piassi, Omar Daf.
Descending farther down the French football pyramid paints a starker picture.
That is just a brief insight into football’s prejudice issues in England and France. The issues are much deeper and more profound the world over. Either Arsène Wenger believes that white coaches are infinitely better than non-white coaches or there is a problem he, like so many others, refuses to see. Or Admit.
I know that this article is risky, that setting myself up against one of the most renown coaches in football history, calling out influential people in the football world and being vocal in this battle is maybe foolhardy for my career and professional ambitions but if I can stop young people from feeling what I have felt, if I can speak up for those that can’t, if I can fight against prejudice and discrimination in all its forms, if I can help propel more people like us to stand upon a platform to deliver the right message then it’ll have been worth it.