Osasu Obayiuwana: Football, racism and me…

I had initially planned to do a piece on the parlous state of Cameroonian football, after the humiliating failure of the not-so-Indomitable Lions, four-time champions of the continent, to qualify for the last two Africa Cup of Nations tournaments.

But, when a nosey-parker journalist – me, in this case – ends up in the news, rather than being in the preferred position of reporting it, one is left with no choice than to make the proverbial lemonade out of lemons.

With my appointment to FIFA’s anti-racism task force, alongside the AC Milan and ‘retired’ Ghana forward Kevin-Prince Boateng and 10 other people, including the UN’s Anti-Discrimination Chief, Navi Pillay, it is only fair that I make my feelings on the subject known.

Regular readers of NewAfrican magazine or my website, footballisafrica.com, would have read this piece – “Football, racism and me” – written in August 2012.

But for those who did not have the opportunity (or interest), to read it at the time, I am reproducing it again, in the hope that more people will understand my stance on the deeply emotive issue:

As my 25th anniversary of being a football reporter, writer and broadcaster beckons, the subject of race, in life, as well as in football, is simmering in my mind.

It is an appropriate accident of fate that I am writing about this subject from the West Tower of Nelson Mandela Square in the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, South Africa – a country that once symbolised the profound evil that results from the institutionalisation of a perfidious system that dehumanised men and women, based on the colour of their skin.

Being born to Nigerian parents in 1960s Britain, a country that was, at the time, being compelled, harshly, to acknowledge that it had a new set of native-born citizens – us – whose non Anglo-Saxon backgrounds and sensitivities they could no longer ignore, I – and those of my kind, were grappling with the distinct challenge of being bi-cultural.

It was certainly the case for me, more than some others, because I never knew my natural parents, properly, until I was eight years old.

Before then, I was raised by a white working-class English family in Colsterworth, a village close to the midlands town of Grantham.

Festus, my father, and Rachael, my late mother, both students in higher education at the time, chose Dennis and Celia Lewis as my foster parents, shortly after I was born.

Raising me, whilst grappling with the punishing demands of coursework, would have been juggling one ball too many for them, they thought.

And I certainly have no complaints about that chapter of my life, as the Lewises cared for me as if I was their own son – a warm, close and very loving relationship that continued until they both died a decade ago.

Being black, whilst living with them, was an abstract, alien concept.

I was as human as anyone else and felt no different from others in a village in which Nosa, my younger brother – now doing his PhD in film studies at Queen Mary’s College, London University – and I were probably its only black faces.

Happy, carefree children we were on the school playground and in the larger world, unaware of the cultural upheaval the presence of our kind was causing in the wider society.

It was only after I went back to my parents, after my Dad had completed his Masters Degree at Scotland’s Strathclyde University, as they prepared to return to Nigeria – which, in my rose-tinted British eyes at the time, was a frighteningly distant, scary, unknown place – did I begin to realise that being black was not regarded as ‘mainstream’ or ‘normal’.

My short stint at Melrose Primary School in Cumbernauld, near Glasgow (I went to three Primary Schools before leaving the UK), where I was bullied for no other reason than my colour, gave me an appetiser of what could have been an uglier main course.

To this day, I recall the boy who made school miserable for me and how Ms Douglas, our headmistress, punished him severely for it.

I was, fortuitously, saved from the lack of self-esteem that racism could have inflicted on me, by my long sojourn in Nigeria – my other country, a place that can drive even the most mild-mannered of souls up and over the wall, due to its consistent inability to live up to its potential as a global economic powerhouse.

Which, of course, makes it ironic that such a befuddling country, currently wrestling with a myriad of ethical, moral and economic challenges, infused me with a healthy sense of self-worth and intellectual confidence that I could be anything that I wanted to be. And, more importantly, that I was no one’s hewer of wood or drawer of water.

When “Roots”, the television series adapted from the book, written by the late Alex Haley, was shown on British television on 1977, I could never stop wondering, even with my extremely limited understanding of the world as a child, how Kunta Kinte, abducted from his Gambian village of Juffre and sold into American slavery, was nearly flogged to death because he refused to accept the slave name of “Toby” that his oppressor had given him. That humiliating image of a proud, dignified man remains in my mind, even now.

Without living in Nigeria, I certainly wouldn’t have had the mental fortitude to confront the harsh challenges that came with returning to Britain in my mid-20s.

Back to Blighty

Having qualified as a Barrister in Nigeria but determined to pursue a career in football journalism in England – a big let down to my father, who felt my career choice was a huge waste of his parental effort (I am still unsure, even after my BBC career and the things that have followed since, that he finally thinks I made the right choice), I realised that, for all my expensive education in Nigeria, it counted for very little in England.

Supposedly at the higher end of the intellectual/social spectrum but clearly seeing the stark reality that I was starting life in my country of birth at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, I began to knock on doors, to resume a journalism career that was in its infancy.

After several rebuffs – polite and blunt, I got freelance opportunities in the ensuing years, working for newspapers like The London Observer, The Daily Mail, Reuters and a host of British, European and Asian magazines and newspapers, even a US radio station.

But no one wanted to hire me full-time, even though editors effusively praised the quality of my work.

And I never got an honest answer on why they could not. Some people may just put that down to factors that have nothing to do with race. And perhaps they are right.

But when white contemporaries, whose skills are not superior to mine, are making the transition into staff positions and climbing the career ladder, what is one supposed to rationally think?

Fortunately, BBC Sport Interactive and the World Service, whom I also freelanced for, offered me, in a rather circuitous fashion, a staff position, whilst I was doing a Master’s Degree at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. I grabbed it with both hands – and my feet as well. What followed, as they say, is career history.

In my travels as a football journalist, throughout the length and breadth of the globe, I have to admit that, by and large, I have been treated with courtesy and respect by the sport’s personalities, officials and professional colleagues, some of whom have become very close friends.

And I have never had an ugly experience at a football ground.

But I’ll never forget my first visit to Real Madrid, after the 1998 World Cup in France, to interview Croatia’s Davor Suker, who emerged as that tournament’s Golden Boot winner.

As I entered the Bernabeu to watch a La Liga game between Real Madrid and Valencia, I was meandering, innocently, through the stands to my press seat, when I unknowingly took a wrong turn.

“Hey!” shouted a Spanish colleague. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked.

“I am trying to get to my press seat,” I replied.

And then came the stern warning: “Where you are trying to pass through is controlled by the Ultra Sur (the right-wing extremist supporters group at Real). It is very, very dangerous for a black person to pass through that area, okay?”

His concern, for what he obviously saw as my close shave with harm, made him point me to a much safer route, for which I thanked him. Was I really that close to being violently attacked at one of football’s most famous grounds? It’s a question for which, fortunately, I’ll never get an answer.

The other sour moment was during a trip I made to Russia, at the invitation of the country’s 2018 World Cup bid Committee in September 2010, ahead of their successful result. Andreas Herren, with whom I developed a good relationship, while he was FIFA’s head of media, was in charge of managing the Russian bid’s international media strategy.

Whilst travelling on the last leg of the press tour, on a high-speed train from St Petersburg to Moscow, a tactless female official of the Russian bid made an off-hand, nasty remark to me, about “how you probably don’t like white people very much”, when she was clearly the socially awkward one.

It took Andrew Warshaw, a colleague who writes for insideworldfootball.biz, to calm me down, as I was incensed by the crass remark.

I never, inexplicably, told Andreas – whose has always treated me with the greatest of respect – what happened.

He will be reading about it on this page. For that, I am truly sorry, my friend…

Racism through the prism of others

Outside the personal sphere, I have heard and chronicled, in detail, the experiences of many African players that ply their trade in the professional leagues of Europe, suffering unbearable indignities at football grounds, from racist colleagues, officials and fans, as well as in their social lives.

Whilst visiting a player at Dortmund, the reigning champions of Germany, he related an instance of how a coach sternly warned him and other black players, before they travelled for a particular away Bundesliga game, not to have a night on the town, because of the high level of racial intolerance in the city.

And this was not in the 1970s or the 1980s, but in the last decade.

He also told me of how Otto Addo, of Ghanaian descent but born and brought up in Germany, was routinely stopped by the city’s police and asked to identify himself, even when they clearly knew who he was – a Dortmund player and that, more importantly, he had done nothing wrong.

Or is it about how an ex-Barcelona player confessed that the only reason he and his friends were admitted into the city’s best nightclubs, despite their colour, was because he wore the Catalan Red and Blue, knowing first-hand how black “nobodies” are routinely turned away at the door?

Or how Jay-Jay Okocha and Anthony Yeboah, both influential players at Eintracht Frankfurt, were forced to leave the Bundesliga because a manager that clearly disliked black players had taken charge?

A colleague and friend, who works at Kicker, Germany’s leading football magazine, admitted to me that the coach concerned was known to be racially biased.

“Osasu, I am German but I have to say the truth. Black people are not treated well in football here. It is the reality. It is, sadly, an unfortunate legacy of our history,” he confessed.

Tales like these, or the well publicised travails of striker Samuel Eto’o, the four-time African Footballer of the Year, during his lengthy sojourn in La Liga, where he ate a banana that was thrown at him by a racist fan, in a public, humourous attempt to dis-empower the stinging nature of the racist act, are not uncommon.

Who can forget the litany of monkey noises and other disgusting chants directed at Eto’o’s person – and the miserable, half-hearted attempts by the Spanish Football Federation to tackle the problem?

And there is unlikely to be, by Spain and other European national federations similarly plagued, any serious attempt to confront racism, if UEFA, European football’s governing body, which ought to be in the forefront of the fight, has a president, Michel Platini, that clearly has a challenging time understanding the magnitude of the problem and the need for the imposition of draconian sanctions, to serve as an appropriate deterrent.

The home nations – the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland FAs, are, fortunately, way ahead of their continental counterparts – even though the controversy that followed the exclusion of Rio Ferdinand by England Manager Roy Hodgson, from the team that went to the current European Championship, shows Britain is no racial utopia.

It beggars belief that Denmark striker Nicklas Bendtner can be handed a whopping fine of nearly $127,000 by UEFA, for pulling down his shorts and displaying underwear advertising, whilst celebrating a goal against Portugal.

But the racist abuse of Italy striker Mario Balotelli, by Croatian fans, at the same tournament? Tut tut… that’s a storm in a teacup, only deserving of a $100,000 fine.

This clearly indicates that UEFA’s disciplinary committee regards racism as a misdemeanour, whilst the infraction of the governing body’s on-field commercial rights is a hanging offence. The pyramid of crimes has been perversely inverted, well and truly.

And it is for this reason that if I do participate in the forthcoming Intelligence Squared/Google Debate, as I have been approached to do, which is scheduled to take place in London on June 29th [2012], I will, without qualms, support the motion that “Balotelli is right that football players should walk off the pitch if they are racially abused.”

I never thought the day would come when the talented, erratic, impetuous – and sometimes plain daft – Balotelli and I would be on the same side of any thought divide.

But fighting racism has a way of uniting even the strangest of bedfellows. And, for the purpose of arm twisting, torturing even, football’s authorities into excising the insidious, ravaging cancer of racism from our sport, it is well worth it.

Monsieur Platini – and Herr Blatter – the balls are in both your courts and we’re all watching. What are you going to do about this problem, seriously?

Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel Laureate for Literature, wrote, in his prison memoirs, that “The man dies in him who keeps silent in the face of tyranny”.

Replacing “tyranny” with the word “racism” is fitting and appropriate.

Postscript – Nearly a year after writing this piece, it is clear that things are not getting better, as recent incidents across Europe, particularly in Italy and in the continent’s Eastern parts, indicate.

But, at least, one has to be fair and admit that FIFA and UEFA chieftains have been finally compelled to realise that the problem of racism is extremely serious and has to be confronted.

Will my colleagues and I, on this FIFA task force, come up with the right measures, to deal with this menace and create a different type of environment, in which all people within football and the areas the sport controls – the arenas – are treated with dignity and respect?

That is certainly the very serious and legitimate question that will keep the watching eyes of the fraternity very busy.

If we fail to deliver the right roadmap and end up being yet another useless ‘talk shop’, the criticism that will be directed at the taskforce will be harsh and unsparing. And so it should be.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1634533568labto1634533568ofdlr1634533568owedi1634533568sni@a1634533568nawui1634533568yabo.1634533568usaso1634533568

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s newly convened anti-racism task force.