Mihir Bose: Can positive discrimination deal with racism and sexism?

The Malky Mackay saga has once again brought racism and sexism in football back on the agenda. And in particular it has raised the question: why is it that the world’s greatest game is so integrated and seems so inclusive on the field of play but off it is “hideously” white, to use FA chairman Greg Dyke’s phrase. If there were any doubts about that last week’s launch of the Champions League once again displayed European football’s Janus face.

The setting in Monaco could not have been more glitzy and UEFA made all the right noises about inclusion. All of UEFA’s events, including Michel Platini’s press conference and the Champions League draw, were held against a background where the most prominent word was respect. This is UEFA speak for saying respect all minorities. Yet at the various events, including the lavish dinner, I doubt if there were more than a handful of black and brown faces and just as few women of any colour. So what is the solution? Could it be positive discrimination to increase the number of minorities at the top table?

Mention positive discrimination, or having quotas for ethnic minorities or women, to deal with racism or sexism, and immediately the cry goes up that this is political correctness gone mad. A solution, so the argument goes, which would not solve anything but make the problem worse.

But here is someone who things that is the only way to tackle this scourge.

“I have always said use the quota system. Positive discrimination is a tool to deal with institutional discrimination. Every organisation has a tendency to appoint the sort of people they already have, people from their own background. There is a kind of pre-selection there. You need the quota system to break that, to widen the perspective. So I am extremely positive about using the quota system. I would recommend that.”

The person making the recommendation is Karen Espelund, the only woman on the UEFA executive making her the most powerful female voice in European football. This former general secretary of the Norwegian football association readily concedes, “I am in principle in favour of having a quota because I am an example of having a quota for women. The UEFA Exco considered the question that you don’t have women proposed for elections to the Exco, so how do you get round that? That is when they decided to have a quota and appoint one. They appointed me [in 2011] and it is positive discrimination, definitely.”

Espelund is not satisfied with being the only woman on the Exco and would like a companion. And when I asked her how long the quota system should continue her answer was very clear, “I would say we need a quota system until we have equality on the UEFA Exco like on the Norwegian football Exco: four women and four men. It had been three women for many, many, many years. Then in March it became four. Now I think it will be very difficult to reduce it.”

And as proof of the power of quotas to change things Espelund gives what she sees is a telling example from Norwegian politics. “When our first female Prime minister was elected in the 80s her government was half male and half female. No male Prime Minister after that could have fewer women.” And this is despite the fact that there are not that many women in the Norwegian parliament although political parties are obliged to make sure that 40% of the nominations by the parties for elections are women.

Extreme as this solution may sound Espelund has been driven to it both by her own experiences and also by the situation European football faces.

One very important reason why she advocates the quota system is that while she accepts that European football is hideously white and male she refuses to describe this as evidence of racism, “It is a white organisation, a white male organisation. But I wouldn’t use the racism word. I don’t call it institutional racism. It is institutional discrimination. European football is not racist but it has a problem of institutional discrimination.”

Now this may seem like semantics but her argument is, “Racism means one race thinks they are superior to the other races. I do not think most people think that way. However there is discrimination. There is some mechanism that stops black people or coloured people or women from getting into positions [of authority]. It is also difficult for gay people to come out. Yes, this is a bad reflection on European football. It makes you wonder what is it about football?

“Football on the pitch is the most inclusive sport. In Norway when it comes to kids there are a lot of black players. But it does not show when it comes to coaches. Black players are accepted but not black coaches or black club presidents. Why does this happen? I wish I was able to explain this. I wish I had better answers.”

It is this search for an answer that has pushed her to argue for a quota solution, an opinion further reinforced by her own experience growing up in the Norway of the 70s. Then for Espelund it was a constant fight to be allowed to even play football. “Football for women was not accepted in Norway in the 60s and 70s.It was institutionally forbidden. Woman’s football was only accepted in Norway in 1976. Until 1976 they said girls are not allowed to play.”

Norway has come a long way since then but it does mean that Espelund has often been, as she is now on the UEFA executive, “alone in a male organisation. I have been in such a situation so many times whether it is on the coaching courses or whether it is in the association.”

And being the only female, and an attractive blonde one at that, she has had to cope with many problems, problems that males would never encounter.

“When I entered football back in the mid 80s people asked me what did I know about football? What is your background? I was a player [playing more than 300 games for her Norwegian club]. I had a coaching education. I had experience in all types of football. But the response was, ‘You only have a background from womens’ football.’ You would never say that to someone who has only been a referee. I had to prove my competence.”

And yes she admits she had to repel the sexual advances of predatory males. “It was not good. I had people making physical gestures. I don’t want to describe them. I dealt with them by throwing them out and saying I don’t want this. I could stand up against that sort of behaviour because I had good people around me who helped me. I never wanted to give up. I saw it as my duty not to do that.”

What encourages Espelund is that when she now talks to Presidents of various associations round Europe, many of them young, they recognise there is a problem and say they are willing to try and solve it. “In European football young generations are coming in and things are slowly changing. Here [in Monaco] I talked to the Rumanian President , newly elected, quite young guy, he said ‘I would like a woman on my Exco.’ Things are moving, slightly, on the question of women in sport. When it comes to having only whites in positions things are much slower.”

It is to hasten this process of change that Espelund wants a quota system.

What Espelund, or nobody can know, is whether the quota system that has worked in Norway, reflecting the culture of a particular country, and a northern European one, could work all over Europe. And for all the encouragement Espelund draws from the young men emerging as Presidents of the far flung European associations she sighs as she hears of yet more allegations of racism and sexism and confesses that the problem cannot be easily solved.

Quotas may bring more women and blacks in some positions of power but for real change we need a change of hearts and attitudes and that Espelund recognises will take a long time. European football, and particularly the Champions League, may be the world league, with people in Singapore changing their sleeping habits to watch it. However the people running it will for a long time to come remain white and Espelund apart, uniformly male. Positive discrimination may nibble at the edges of this world but not fundamentally change it.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His book The Spirit of the Game, published by Constable and Robinson, is now available in paperback. Follow mihir on twitter @mihirbose