On racism in football: “Knowing the history is a necessary condition to make a change”

Professor Gijsbert Oonk conducts research on migration, citizenship and identity at the Erasmus School of History Culture and Communication. What is a state? What is a nation? What is a citizen? Who is a citizen? Oonk uses sport as a mirror to look at major migration and identity issues.

An example: in 2018, France became world football champion. Within France, a debate arose about the extent to which the coloured French team was really a French national team. Outside France, some African countries identified strongly with players from the French team. The African-American comedian Trevor Noah even stated that 'Africa had become world champion' and that France could never have become world champion without its colonial past. “In my research I show that our idea of national identity is actually very thin.”

To what extent does your research have to do with the Black Lives Matter movement?

"I do research on inclusion and exclusion based on citizenship, Black Lives Matter is one example. If you relate it to football, when is a player 'one of us'? And when is a player not one of 'us'? When things went badly for the Dutch national team, a group of racist Dutch supporters became angry at a picture of a number of black players. When things go well, it is one team and everyone is proud. People like to identify with success. But when things don't go so well, it's interesting to see who has to justify themselves. Players of colour and players with dual nationality will sooner or later be confronted with a loyalty issue.”

Does racism especially emerge when things don't go well?

"Yeah, it's often that simple and that opportunistic. When things are going well, there's a big ‘we’ feeling. And when things don't go well, there's an 'us' and a 'them'. But that's not just racist. I'm often in the Kuip. When Feyenoord wins, 'we' have won. When things don't go well, 'they' haven't played well. When we are successful, we use ‘us’ and when we want to create distance, we use ‘them’. In my inaugural speech called 'Who are we cheering for?' I ask the question: who is the 'who' and who is the 'we'? In the daily language of journalists in the newspapers and politicians in front of the camera, those 'we' and 'they' are used all the time, often without thinking about it. Yet these words constantly influence our thinking about inclusion and exclusion. As a researcher, I want to demonstrate in a scientific way how this works."

"We've done research on all World Championships from 1930 to the present day: how many people are on a national team who weren't born in that country? We thought this to be a relatively new phenomenon, for example since we have a lot of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands, but it turns out it wasn’t new at all. At the first World Cup in 1930, Italy played with five Italians who were born in Argentina. It turns out that the percentage is constant: between 8 and 12 percent of footballers at WC’s are not born in the country they are playing for.”  

"If you look at Morocco, 17 of the 23 players of the national team weren't born in Morocco. Morocco could have made a team in 2018 with players who were all born in Europe. From a state perspective, that's strange. Maybe not from the player's perspective. Players with a migration background can often choose to play for more than one national team. In the Infografic is the example of Adnan Januzai who could have played for five teams. Such players often choose a team from the perspective of their sporting career. But whatever they choose, it is never good. For the Dutch Moroccans who choose the Dutch team, if they don't play well, they are not Dutch enough and if they would choose the Moroccan team, sooner or later they would not be Moroccan enough. These players are literally in between two cultures. If it goes well, it doesn't matter. If it doesn't go well, they get complaints. That is, apparently, the way in which we want to strengthen our Dutchness, or our national identity, every day. As if we have to fight for it all the time."

"When things don't go well, they get complaints. It's in the way we want to give our Dutch citizenship, or our national identity, a place every day"

How does your research make the world a better place?

"One of the goals of our research is to show this: no matter how enthusiastic you are in the moment for a football team, realize that this identification is very thin. Our research is used to create teaching materials for secondary schools. Together with Euroclio we created a website where the history of football is told, and stories about inclusion, exclusion, inequality, racism, gender. The website Football Makeshistory for example contains the stories of pioneers of the first black players in Europe and the rise of women's football during the First World War. Knowing this history is a necessary condition to make a change. A next step is to tackle the institutions that perpetuate inequality. Racism in football has a long history. For a long time referees haven't paid enough attention to it, that is slowly changing now."

You're researching anti-Semitic speech choirs amongst Feyenoord supporters, can you tell us anything about that?

"The Anne Frank House has started a project to ban anti-Semitic choirs from stadiums. At Feyenoord all sorts of things are shouted about Jews, supporters themselves say: 'Of course it's not about Jews, it's about that club in Amsterdam'. For a long time, the reaction from the KNVB and other professionals has been: it's only a small group, these are people who become annoying in groups. Partly due to the AFS, coaches of football fans are now being trained to see how we can deal with this better. In addition, people with a stadium-ban are offered a programme that links the history of the Second World War, the Holocaust and the history of the club. Our PhD student is researching this programme: how is it set up, and how can history be used to create awareness among supporters and in the stadium? Increasingly, the KNVB and football clubs are now also saying: it's not okay. Punishment alone doesn't help, we have to create more awareness."

"Knowing this history is a necessary condition to make a change"

Does the football world take more responsibility?

"Yes, I do think so. Slowly but surely something is changing. I think we've reached a tipping point. Until now, there's always been talk of ‘one racist incident’. Turmoil, then silence again. My own research shows that the number of racist incidents in stadiums has not increased very much since the nineties. What is changing, is that football clubs and the KNVB are starting to look more and more at their own policies. The problem no longer exists only between supporters. Why are the board members of the football clubs all white? Why are the youth trainers mainly white, while eighty percent of the players have a Turkish, Moroccan or Surinamese background in the Netherlands?
My colleague Jacco van Sterkenburg has done an interesting study which shows that trainers subconsciously tend to put people of colour at the forefront. They have to be explosive, big and strong. A midfielder or defender has to be more strategic, and more often is a white player. You can check that statistically. This is strange to say the least: because a talented soccer player should be able to stand anywhere on the field. Probably this has already been developed in youth training, and certain children are coached more into a certain position.”  

Aren't these 'institutional' problems in football very difficult to change?

"Mapping the facts about the past and present is already a big step towards a solution. In addition, creating awareness is important. This awareness starts in schools and with young people. In addition, we see that interest in our research is also growing among policymakers and journalists. One of the major challenges for the Mijnals committee that the KNVB has set up to tackle racism within football will be to translate policy and insights into practice.”

Professor

prof.dr. (Gijsbert) G Oonk

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