The ‘Beautiful Game?’: Racism And Misogyny In Football

Football on a pitch
Anna Boyne

For English football fans, the moment Harry Kane’s second penalty kick against the French goalkeeper went soaring over the goal was devastating. England’s hopes of progressing to the semi-final of the Qatar 2022 World Cup had been dashed. France was up 2-1 in the 84th minute and a come-back seemed impossible. Yet for many others, this was a moment of dread and panic. Football has long been the breeding ground of racism and misogyny, and the 2022 World Cup is no exception. Anna Boyne discusses.

According to a 2014 study at Lancaster University, reports of domestic abuse to the police increased by 26% when the national team won or drew, and by 38% when the team lost. Other studies suggest abuse is worse when England wins. These statistics only included cases that have been reported. Domestic abuse is often considered a hidden crime, so the actual occurrences can be considered much higher.  

A culture of misogyny persists amongst football fans and is undeniably partly responsible for such concerning statistics. Any woman who shows their interest in the sport must expect to be belittled, quizzed on players in their favourite team, and have the off-side rule mansplained. While these micro-aggressions are frequently dismissed as banter and lad culture, the reality is more sinister. 

For many women, an England victory could mean facing physical or sexual abuse

Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Sexism, suggests that “if you have a culture where the low-level stuff is brushed off and accepted, that normalises and smooths the way for more serious abuses not to be taken seriously.”  

This year, Women’s Aid launched a campaign to ‘raise awareness of football-related abuse towards women in England and Wales.’ This launch coincided with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  

Women’s Aid partnered with artist Corbin Shaw to create a series of St. George’s Cross flags featuring alternative slogans. They have been displayed in sixteen locations across the country and will be later auctioned off to raise further charity funds.  

He’s Coming Home’ is perhaps the most recognisable. A clear pun on the football chant ‘It’s Coming Home’, Shaw’s flag is much more ominous in tone. Another of the flags created features the words ‘No More Years of Hurt’, a line from the iconic ‘Three Lions’ football song. It shows the reality that for many women, an England victory could mean facing physical or sexual abuse from their partner.  

Players of colour are only considered English while they’re playing well

Women’s Aid CEO Farah Nazeer explained that “factors such as increased alcohol consumption and the heightened emotions associated with big matches can cause existing abuse to increase in frequency and intensity.”

This campaign is doing crucial work in raising awareness of the realities for many domestic abuse survivors, especially in the context of football and major tournaments like the World Cup.   

Football has also bred a culture of racism. Something which keeps cropping up again and again is the idea that players of colour are only considered English while they’re playing well and contributing to the nation’s successes. The minute a mistake is made, their citizenship is called into question, and they become targets of racist abuse. The colour of their skin and heritage is ridiculed at best and vilified at worst.  

This has never been more evident than after the Euros 2020 final against Italy. Three of the penalty takers who missed happened to be Black. Almost immediately Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho become victims to a torrent of racial abuse.  

“The moment you make a mistake, people will be waiting to tear you down”

The vandalised mural in Manchester of Rashford remains a painful visual reminder, even after its repair. Rashford later commented: “Only time will tell if the situation improves. But it’s not improved over the last few years.”

Comparisons could be drawn between the Kane’s missed penalty and that of Saka’s. Both crushed the dreams of a nation of football supporters hoping to see it ‘coming home’. Yet, there were 3000 abusive social media posts on Twitter in just the hours after the penalty shootout in 2020, compared to 168 throughout the tournament in Qatar. The distinguisher is obvious: none of the crucial errors were that of a Black player.   

Jay Harris, a Black journalist for The Athletic, said that this ‘was a stark reminder for people with mixed heritage and/or dual nationality, that their position within society is often conditional – the moment you make a mistake, people will be waiting to tear you down.’

In the week running up to the Qatar World Cup, 100 racist tweets which were reported to Twitter were studied by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. Of those, 11 used the N-word to describe footballers, 25 used monkey or banana emojis directed at players, 13 called for players to be deported, and 25 attacked players by telling them to ‘go back to’ other countries. Thirteen tweets targeted footballers over their English skills. 

Yet persistent cultures of racism and misogyny are the ugly reality which cannot be ignored

Dr Jamie Cleland has drawn parallels between the recent rise in online abuse and hooliganism of the 1970s and 80s. “Through the generations, football has historically turned boys into men. Whereas once they proved themselves by engaging in violence, now it’s about proving their worth online as a fan.” Worryingly, this suggests that violence continues to be an intrinsic feature of football, whatever new medium it takes.  

Jonathan Liew, journalist for The Guardian, makes the convincing argument that racism is part of a deep-rooted societal problem with football fans often scapegoated for it. While there’s no denying that racism exists, it’s important to remember that this is only a minority. Liew suggests that, ‘Football may not be the root cause of all its problems. But perhaps it can be the root of the solution.’ It is the responsibility of the majority to call out these behaviours and help end the cycle.  

Community and belonging are at the heart of football. Through highs and lows, it unites people of all walks of life, from local to national level. It is this that makes football ‘The Beautiful Game’. Yet persistent cultures of racism and misogyny are the ugly reality which cannot be ignored. The 2022 Qatar World Cup has been no exception.  

Anna Boyne

Featured image courtesy of Markus Spiske via Pexels. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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