What We Can Learn From Racism in Football

This blog post was written by Phil Lane, director of Oasis Belgium.

This week the headlines have been full of Mesut Ozil quitting the German team because of the racism he’s suffered after their early exit from the world cup. When he was playing well, he was seen as German, when things fell apart he was “that Turkish player”. Despite giving his all year after year for his national team, when it came down to it, because of where his family was from, he wasn’t accepted. The same thing was echoed in an extraordinary piece written by the Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku before the world cup started. He tells of growing up in Antwerp, Liege and Brussels in poverty so bad that they couldn’t afford food for the week. Rats ran loose in his parents’ apartment and he had holes in his shoes. It was then that he vowed that by the time he was sixteen, he would be playing professionally for Anderlecht. Despite the racism of watching parents in various youth teams, he made his dream come true, but even now, like Ozil, if things are going badly, the press don’t talk about him as Belgian, but rather “The Belgian player of Congolese descent.” We are happy when immigrants are doing well for us, but when we lose, the reality surfaces again.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that this is what we are seeing in football, because it’s only a reflection of attitudes in wider society. Although we’ve come a long way since the slavery and colonialism of previous centuries, those events have left deep marks on European and American society, and there is still an underlying racism which effects many millions of people. As a privileged, white man, its would be easy to ignore the reality and tell everyone that we are “all equal now.”. The problem is that I see the opposite every day. At Oasis we work to help Thai women who have been trafficked or are experiencing violence from their boyfriend or husband. In one case recently, a man had gone as a sex tourist to Thailand and had deceived a woman into marrying him, when all he really wanted was sex, someone to clean his house and to cook Thai food just like he ate at the restaurants in Pattaya. When it became apparent that the woman wasn’t a good cook, he started to attack her, pulling chunks of hair out of her head. This is a mixture of extreme misogyny and racism. Western men often see Asian women as objects for exotic sex and service. There is a picture of a type of slavery in their minds that excites them and ruins the lives of thousands of women.

We also work with women from North Africa. Like Lukaku, they live in poverty, struggling to find the money for their next meal, mice running through the apartment and being rejected at every turn. One woman who we have been helping for years, recently parked her pushchair outside a play area for children, and while they were in there, someone smeared dog excrement on the handle. When you are living under the constant shadow of poverty, how do you deal with racist attacks as well?

Sometimes we help Roma families, and of all people living in Belgium, these people perhaps suffer the most racism. Even children on the streets will be vilified, and on one occasion when we were taking a group of Roma children to a playground, locals set the dogs on them.

These are not isolated incidents, they are part of every day life for thousands of people.

So, when we see the racism that is aimed at football players, we can’t simply say that football has a problem, we all have a problem. You can’t say that it’s a problem of immigration either. I’m an immigrant and I’ve very rarely experienced problems or prejudice. I’m white and so people don’t notice me, or object to me. This is a problem of racism. Whether people living in poverty in Belgium grow up to be successful footballers, or continue to struggle, they deserve respect and dignity as our fellow human beings.

Please help us continue our work with migrants in Belgium as we help them break down the barriers of poverty and discrimination. You can donate to our work here.