As a veteran of several boardroom battles and high-wire conflict with the British Labour party, as he led a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that was extremely critical of the former’s conduct in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, while it was the party of government, one would have thought an English FA chaired by a supposedly media savvy Greg Dyke would be particularly conscious about not embarrassing itself in public.
Resigning in rather dramatic (some would say unfair) circumstances, as the BBC’s director-general in 2004, following a judicial commission of inquiry that criticised the organisation’s reportage of the government’s pre-war conduct, Dyke got a public lesson about the brutality and impermanence of life at the top end of the corporate food chain.
But the cauldron of criticism for Dyke’s FA, following the rather haphazard way it appointed and announced the commission, tasked with the duty of developing a holistic roadmap for a competitive England national team, clearly indicates that the gulf, between those that run the FA and a part of the constituency to which it is responsible, is yet to be bridged and that it is also unaware of what can put it in a very negative light.
People charged with the responsibility of reviving the fortunes of a national team that has not won a World Cup in nearly half a century must, without doubt, be appointed primarily for their depth of knowledge, an ability to critically analyse problems and recommend the right solutions for untying a longstanding, seemingly intractable knot.
But within the remit of finding competent people, it is certainly not a contradiction in terms – nor a particularly tall order, if the FA is committed to the principle – of ensuring that the commission is drawn from all sections of the wider community that it serves.
The excuse given by Dyke that the FA found itself in a tough spot when it was unable to appoint Clarke Carlisle, the outgoing chair of the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), because the PFA wanted the incoming chairman, who may not belong to an ethnic minority, to be a part of the commission, is not a particularly plausible one.
Putting it mildly, it’s slight disingenuous to imply there is a dearth of knowledgeable people, from the ethnic minority within football, that are willing and able to contribute meaningfully to solving the problems of the English game.
That Heather Rabbatts, the only female and ethnic minority FA board member, felt so frustrated about the way the appointment of people to the commission was handled, which led to the public – and extremely embarrassing – salvos she fired at the FA board, indicates a level of dysfunction within it that should be deeply worrying.
“The lack of proper consultation on the make-up of the Commission, the fact that no approval was sought from the Board… and the lack of diversity, have all meant that the opportunity to lead an informed debate on the future of English players has been singularly damaged,” she rightly observed.
“It is therefore particularly ironic that a Commission to look at the national team has been formed with absolutely no representation from the Black and Ethnic Minority communities, many of whom play such an important role at every level of our game.
“What is required is not tokenism but the involvement of individuals who have direct and relevant experience of what it means to represent their country while coming from diverse cultural backgrounds.”
That not a single person from an ethnic minority, which has a participation of nearly 30% in the top professional ranks, was in the working group, until the Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand was included, following what Dyke admitted was “a mistake” – an understatement, if there ever is one – hardly does any favours to an association claiming to have made great strides, beyond tokenism, in serving a community that is broad and diverse.
Readers of this column know that I primarily concern myself with the state of the African game – which has enough problems to highlight and think about. But the problem of inclusion in English football is one, taking into cognisance my personal background, I cannot ignore.
The pervasive culture of appointments within English football, whether its for coaching positions or a place within rarefied officialdom, has largely relied on the ‘old boys network’, in which being a part of an exclusive group of individuals often triumphs over enforcing a transparent system in which ability and competence decides those that ascend to positions of responsibility.
Whatever profession that one belongs to, not just in football, it’s a reality that the climb up the career ladder is aided not just by what you know but it is also about whom one knows as well.
But if the balance is heavily weighed in favour of the latter, which ensures that merit ends up taking an inconsequential seat at the back of the proverbial bus, excellence will never sit on the throne.
Piara Powar, the executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe and my colleague on the FIFA anti-discrimination task force, was spot on when he described the FA’s blunder as a “big mistake”.
“If they appoint someone on to the commission now (as it subsequently did with Ferdinand) it very much looks like tokenism,” he was quoted as saying in The Guardian newspaper.
“If an FA board member such as Heather Rabbatts cannot make headway with the FA on this, then who can?”
It is a question that Greg Dyke’s FA will have to answer in a prompt manner, to show that it is really serious about charting a progressive, fresh course for resolving the challenges that English football is grappling with.
Encouraging diversity in the corridors of power is not about ‘helping’, ‘doing a favour’ or having a sense of moral empathy for a group of people within English and British society that deservedly feel they have not been given a fair chance to sit at the game’s top table and influence policy.
It is about ensuring that talent and knowledge, in whatever ethnicity and gender it comes, is not excluded from English football’s quest to resolve its problems, because it is counterproductive to do so.
As I’ve said before, in a slightly different way, considering that competence and deep knowledge, in any sphere of endeavour, is rare, isn’t English football’s best option to ensure that it spreads its talent dragnet as far as it possibly can? To pursue a different path just isn’t good business sense.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.