Football authorities in England accused of not taking Islamophobia seriously

Grassroots players tell study about regularly facing anti-Muslim hatred from fans, teammates and opponents

Hackney Marshes, east London, without Sunday league football.
Hackney Marshes, east London, without Sunday league football. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Hackney Marshes, east London, without Sunday league football. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Last modified on Mon 15 Feb 2021 11.31 EST

Football authorities have been accused by Muslim grassroots football players of failing to take Islamophobia seriously despite placing a focus on the broader issue of racism in the game.

In the first research of its kind, more than 40 men and women from Muslim backgrounds shared their experiences of facing anti-Muslim hatred in Sunday league football from fans, teammates and opponents.

Muslim women described how wearing the headscarf made them a target of hostility online from fans as well as offline from other players, and of being held back and not selected by their own team.

Others spoke of being unable to source sponsorship, having to seek counselling because of the abuse and of witnessing young children on the sidelines repeat the hatred espoused by their parents.

The research comes after data gathered by the police, the FA and anti-discrimination campaigners showed an incident of hate crime at one in 10 football fixtures during the 2019-20 season in England and Wales.

Participants in research by academics at Birmingham City University and Nottingham Trent University linked problems with Islamophobia at grassroots level to lack of representation of Muslims at more senior levels of football, especially in the Premier League. “Trigger events” such as terrorist attacks and some media reporting on Islam and Muslims were also linked.

“Asian men like me who are brown and have a beard go into predominantly white areas to play football, in these areas they associate being brown and having a beard with being a terrorist,” said one participant. “Their first feeling when they see us is negativity and hate because of the propaganda the media perpetuate.”

One female participant said: “I receive racist and misogynistic posts on my Facebook account. They call me Isis bitch and Bin Laden’s daughter.”

A “more inclusive” grassroots approach and positive action campaigns were both needed, according to the authors of the research How the “Beautiful Game” Turned to Hate: Why Islamophobia has creeped into Grassroots Football.

“At the moment the FA seems like a national entity that is detached from reality and what is happening locally on the streets. It needs to start over again and encourage homegrown Muslim men and women into football,” said Imran Awan, professor of criminology at BCU.

The current scouting system was meanwhile described as “not fit for purpose” by Dr Irene Zempi, a senior Lecturer in criminology at NTU. “Clubs also need a separate hate crime strategy and one that tackles institutional racism,” she added.

England’s FA said it took all matters and allegations of discrimination extremely seriously, adding that tackling inequality and discrimination was a key priority for the organisation.

A spokesperson said the FA’s Asian inclusion plan, Bringing Opportunities to Communities, aimed to encourage greater participation across the game through better engagement. “Part of the plan focuses on working with faith groups to deliver events and mark notable moments with and for local communities,” they added.

Initiatives designed to help support football participation during Ramadan in recent years have included the Ramadan Midnight League, led by Birmingham County FA. The association has also published “faith factsheets” for fans and others.

Greg Clarke was forced to quit as chairman of the England FA in ignominious circumstances last November after a series of offensive gaffes during evidence to MPs in which he spoke of “coloured footballers” and said “south Asians” and “Afro-Caribbeans” have “different career interests”.

The Professional Footballers’ Association, the trade union for professional association footballers in England and Wales, recently launched an Asian inclusion mentoring scheme, which gives young footballers in academies access to professional players.