FIFA World Cup: Plans are in place to try to stop footballers facing online racial abuse |SBS Dateline

When Alan Bush was watching last year’s European Championship final – played between England and Italy at London’s Wembley Stadium – he was holding his breath. But not for the same reason as his fellow Britons.
After 130 minutes of gruelling end-to-end football, both teams selected five players each to line up for a penalty shoot-out to decide which nation would be champions of Europe. When England’s Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho missed their spot kicks – handing Italy the title – few could have imagined what would follow.

But Alan says he was primed for what would unfold.

Alan Bush outside Wembley Stadium in London.

“So I’m sat there watching the game. I’m watching the penalty shoot-out. I watched the second black player miss a penalty. And my first thing I do is pick up my phone and I started to look for racist abuse,” he says.

Alan has spent the last few years working as a fan education manager with UK football’s anti-discrimination organisation, Kick It Out. He’s become accustomed to seeing racist abuse online.

And on this occasion, the abuse came thick and fast. The three black players who missed their penalties were subjected to a tidal wave of social media attacks from within the UK and around the world. Analysis by the Hate Lab found upwards of 380 hate speech posts per hour at its peak.

I watched the second black player miss a penalty. And my first thing I do is pick up my phone and I started to look for racist abuse.

Alan Bush

This year, Alan has been running a first-of-its-kind one-on-one education program with some of those very abusers.
“It’s an issue within football and it’s an issue within society,” he says. “The reasons, the excuses that have come out are ‘I was upset’. ‘I didn’t mean it in a racist way’. ‘I was angry that they missed a penalty.’ Some of them said, ‘I didn’t think the players would see it’.”
“There was no justification and the reasons were pretty poor.”
A recent report by world football’s governing body FIFA found over half of the players who featured in last year’s Euro final were abused online – not just Rashford, Saka and Sancho.

The FIFA report showed similar levels of online racial abuse before, during and after this year’s Africa Cup of Nations final, too, played between Egypt and Senegal. As in England, the majority of abusers were from the players’ home nations.

Former star talks about his experience

It’s a scourge professional footballers have faced since the dawn of social media.
Louis Saha knows how it feels to receive this kind of abuse.

From 1997 to 2013, Saha played for some of Europe’s biggest clubs, including Manchester United, Everton, Tottenham and Lazio. He also played 20 times for the French national team.

A man wearing a cap and sunglasses.

Louis Saha near Nice, France.

“So England, especially going to the final, those three black players miss their penalties. It was an easy target for racists, people who are not even supporters. Some of them are just super aggressive attention grabbers,” Saha told Dateline.

In 2012, towards the end of his career, Saha faced similar abuse online. He was attacked in a racist, expletive-laden Twitter post, which shocks him to this day.

A tweet with blurred words.

The tweet attacking Louis Saha.

“I did react like many other players, calmly, because you can’t have any kind of solution that will be drastic,” Saha says. “I needed to address it in a very sensible way to make them realise that it’s not something to do. Whatever is online is not a game. It is not funny.

“When you attack me, attack my family, these people who are not concerned about football, they think that is a way to disrupt your game or disrupt your focus.

“I thought it was more about him having a problem, having weaknesses. I was experienced enough to see it this way.”

A man wearing glasses and a hat.

Louis Saha speaking to Dateline.

Saha says the reaction from clubs and the football establishment at the time was muted and whilst progress has been made over the last decade in England, much work remains across Europe.

“You need strong support from institutions, from clubs, from towns, from the government in so many ways. Those guys who are deciding who can make the change are hiding. They’re hiding because it’s costing them money. They’re hiding because it’s taking time, it’s taking change of legislation,” he says. “So many other countries in Europe are not addressing it.”

What’s the situation like at matches?

Football’s challenges combating racism and discrimination aren’t limited to the online realm. A conducted by Kick It Out during the 2019-20 season in England found 30 per cent of people had witnessed racist comments or chants at a football match. Of those, 14 per cent had witnessed racism in the last week alone.

And while overall reports of discrimination in and around the professional game for the 2021-22 season are slightly down compared with two seasons ago, there were still 380 complaints of discrimination made over the most recent season, with reports of racism accounting for roughly half of those claims.

Ifshaan Mahmoud first sensed the tensions in his football community back in 2017, when his local club, Middlesbrough FC, which plays in England’s second tier professional competition, the Championship, approached him and asked if he’d help set up a fan group for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) supporters.
“It’s basically a BAME community around the stadium and we didn’t feel like they had any voice in the terraces,” says Ifshaan, who is now a central figure in the Boro Fusion fan group.

“Historically, I think football as a whole has had a hooliganism problem and a racist problem where BAME fans didn’t think it was a safe environment to be going to the match. So for example, my parents, they came to England in the 1960s from Pakistan and they’ve never really been comfortable to go to football games because of the stigma around it.”

Three people watching a football game.

Ifshaan Mahmoud (centre) watching a Middlesbrough FC game with friends.

“Today, you come to a match and you think, can I really express myself? If I do express myself, will I experience any form of hate?” Ifshaan says. “You’re on edge.”

“One of the aims of Boro Fusion is to obviously break down barriers, tackle the racism problem, and get more of the BAME community feeling like the stadium is a safe environment for themselves.”

Fears of abuse happening again at World Cup

In November this year, the world’s attention will once again be on football when the men’s World Cup takes place in Qatar.

World football’s governing body FIFA will use an in-tournament moderation service to detect and block online abuse aimed at players – technology, FIFA bosses say, which can scan recognised hate-speech terms and prevent offending messages from being seen by the intended recipient and their followers.

I think football as a whole has had a hooliganism problem and a racist problem where BAME fans didn’t think it was a safe environment to be going to the match.

Ifshaan Mahmoud

The last 18 months has also seen the introduction of a monitoring platform by the English Premier League, as well as a Football Online Hate Working Group established by Kick It Out to look at processes around sanctions and enforcements.

And later this year, the UK parliament is expected to complete the much-anticipated Online Safety Bill, which aims to place a greater duty of care on tech companies to tackle abuse on their platforms.

Fans standing at a Middlesbrough home match.

A section of the crowd at a Middlesbrough home match.

Still, with Qatar on the horizon, Alan Bush fears a potential repeat of the same hateful barrage witnessed after the Euro final.

“There was a national outcry (after the Euros). I have personally delivered education sessions to fans involved in that. There have been a number of fans who ended up going to prison for eight weeks, for 14 weeks,” he says.
“So I certainly think that there has been a precedent set off the back of the Euros and the online abuse. So that fills me with a little bit hope that it won’t happen again. But if I’m honest and you want my honest answer, I think that it could happen again.”

“And I think that the more we do that work, the more we change attitudes, the more we change opinions, the more that there are prosecutions, people going to prison for racist abuse of footballers. The more that that happens, the more football authorities take it seriously.”