Racism in Football: History Fact File

A brief history of racism in football, dating back to the late 1800s, and showing how little we’ve come since then.

  • The first ever black player to play football at a top level in the United Kingdom was Scotsman Andrew Watson. Watson was actually appointed as the Scotland captainin 1881 and there are indeed no reports of any racism in the footballing world around this time.

  • Nowadays, around 25% of professional footballers are black, which is brilliant for the sport. However in the 93/94 season, a survey of Premier League fans showed that only 1% of fans considered themselves as “non-white”, due to a frequency of racism among football fans at this time.

  • One of the first incidents of racism in South American football occurred more than 100 years ago, in 1916, during the South American Championships in Argentina. Uruguay’s black forward Isabelino Gradin became the first black footballer to make an appearance in a competitive international match, which the Chilean fans were unhappy with, claiming that Uruguay unfairly played an “African”. Gradin went on to score 2 goals in the game in a 4-0 win, a victory which eventually led to the Uruguayans winning the competition. A fitting way to silence the racists!

  • Dating even further back, in 1887, it was not the fans who were inciting racial hatred towards a black footballer, but rather the British media outlets. Black Preston North End goalkeeper Arthur Wharton was perhaps surprisingly extremely popular with the fans, but despite this, an article in the Athletic Journal called Wharton a “darkie”, and implied that if Preston were to keep playing him, their chances of winning would be considerably lower.

  • It shames me to say that racism from media outlets still goes on today, just as it did in the past. In 2018, a post by Raheem Sterling on Instagram saw him criticise the papers, specifically the Daily Mail, of “fuelling racism” after they reported on a young black footballer (Tosin Adarabioyo) buying a house for himself “despite having never started a Premier League match”. However in the same year, they reported on young caucasian midfielder Phil Foden buying a home and praised him in the article, calling him a “starlet”.

  • Sterling claimed that both players had done the “right thing” in buying a house for their parents, but Adarabioyo was painted in a “bad light”, whilst Foden was not. If the media fuel racist agendas, there is no doubt that the public gain an unfair opinion on young black footballers through the media.

  • Many footballers have claimed that the authorities do not do enough to deal with racism within the sport, including Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger, who said that when no one is punished for racial abuse, “racism wins“, after being the target of racial abuse against Tottenham in 2019.

  • Raheem Sterling also agrees with Rudiger in that the punishments sanctioned are not enough. He believes that racism at football games should be punished with a nine-point deduction for the club involved, as opposed to fining the individual racists. The England winger believes this is a stronger incentive to fans, as no fan will “risk racist behaviour if it might relegate their team”.

  • One of the most damning facts that show just how little the footballing world has come since the 1800s, is that Greg Clarke, the (now former) chairman of the FA was forced to resign just this year after using unacceptable language when referring to black footballers. The fact that one of the biggest footballing organisations in the world, can be run by people with such old-fashioned views and ideologies deeply upsets me, although his resigning does go some way to show improvements.

  • Anti-semitism is another form of micro-aggression that we often see within football. Tottenham Hotspur supporters are more often than not the subject of abuse for this style of micro-aggression, due to the club’s association with Jewish fans throughout history. Rival fans chant disgusting things such as “the gas man’s got them”, referring to the devastating holocaust, a time in history that should never be joked about.

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