As the 25th anniversary of my being a football reporter, writer, and broadcaster beckons, the subject of race, in life, as well as in football, is simmering in my mind.
It is an appropriate accident of fate that I am writing about this subject from the West Tower of Nelson Mandela Square in the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, South Africa – a country that once symbolised the profound evil that results from the institutionalisation of a perfidious system which dehumanised men and women, based on the colour of their skin. Being born to Nigerian parents in 1960s Britain, a country that was, at the time, being compelled, harshly, to acknowledge that it had a new set of native-born citizens – us – whose non Anglo-Saxon backgrounds and sensitivities they could no longer ignore, I – and those of my kind – were grappling with the distinct challenge of being bi-cultural.
It was certainly the case for me, more than for some others, because I never properly knew my natural parents until I was eight years old. Before then, I was raised by an English working-class family in Colsterworth, a village close to the midlands town of Grantham, the hometown of Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister. Festus, my father, and Rachael, my late mother, both students in higher education at the time, chose Dennis and Celia Lewis as my foster parents, shortly after I was born. Raising me, whilst grappling with the punishing demands of coursework, would have been juggling one ball too many for my biological parents, they thought. And I certainly have no complaints about that chapter of my life, as the Lewises, who were also Mum and Dad to me, loved me as their own – a warm and close relationship that continued until they both died a decade ago. Attending both their burials, in Grantham, was a difficult experience.
Being black, whilst living with them, was an abstract, alien concept.
I was as human as anyone else and felt no different from others in a village in which Nosa, my younger brother – now doing his PhD in film studies at Queen Mary’s College, London University – and I were probably its only black faces.
In the school playground and in the larger world we were happy, carefree children, unaware of the cultural upheaval the presence of our kind was causing in the wider British society.
Tory grandee Enoch Powell was a pretty busy man at the time, warning white Britain about how black people would eventually grow up to have “the whip hand” over the white population.
And a good job of scaremongering Powell did, even though present-day Britain is, thank goodness, an indictment of the gutter tactics he employed in the public sphere in the 1960s and 1970s.
It was only after I went back to my natural parents, after my Dad had completed his Masters’ Degree at Scotland’s Strathclyde University, as they prepared to return to Nigeria – which, through my British rose-tinted glasses at that time was a frighteningly distant, scary, unknown place – did I begin to realise that being black was not regarded as “mainstream” or “normal”.
My short stint at Melrose Primary School in Cumbernauld, near Glasgow (I went to three primary schools before leaving the UK), where I was bullied for no other reason than my colour, gave me an appetiser of what could have been an uglier main course. To this day, I recall the boy who made school miserable for me and how Ms Douglas, our headmistress, punished him severely for it.
I was, fortuitously, saved from the lack of self-esteem that racism could have inflicted on me, by my long sojourn in Nigeria, a place that can drive even the most mild-mannered of souls up and over the wall, due to its consistent inability to live up to its potential as a global economic powerhouse. That, of course, makes it ironic that such a befuddling country, currently wrestling with a myriad of ethical, moral and economic challenges, infused me with a healthy sense of self-worth and intellectual confidence that I could be anything that I wanted to be.
And, that more importantly, I was not ordained to be a hewer of wood or drawer of water.
When “Roots”, the television series adapted from the book written by the late African-American Alex Haley, was shown on British television in 1977, I could never stop wondering, even with my extremely limited understanding of the world as a child, how Kunta Kinte, abducted from his Gambian village of Juffre and sold into American slavery, was nearly flogged to death because he refused to accept the slave name of “Toby” that his oppressor had given him. That humiliating image of a proud, dignified man remains in my mind, even now. Without living in Nigeria, I certainly wouldn’t have had the mental fortitude to confront the harsh challenges that came with returning to Britain in my mid-20s.
Back to Blighty
Having qualified – and practised – as a barrister in Nigeria but determined to pursue a career in journalism in England – a big let-down to my father, who felt my career choice was a huge waste of his parental effort and resources (I am still unsure, even now, that he finally thinks I made the right choice), I realised that, for all my expensive education in Nigeria, it counted for very little in England.
Supposedly raised to be at the higher end of the intellectual/social spectrum, in any society, but clearly seeing the stark reality that I was starting life in my country of birth (England) at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, I began to knock on doors, to resume a journalism career that was in its early years.
After several rebuffs – ranging from polite to blunt – I got freelance work in the following years, working for British newspapers like The Observer, The Guardian, The Daily Mail and the news agency Reuters. My writing tentacles also extended to European papers like Germany’s Die Welt and the Danish tabloid BT, as well as several international magazines like World Soccer, FourFourTwo and others based in continental Europe and Asia.
But no one wanted to hire me full-time, even though editors consistently and effusively praised the quality of my work.
And I never got an honest answer on why they could not hire me. Some people may just put that down to factors that have nothing to do with race. And perhaps they are right.
But when white contemporaries, whose skills are not superior to mine, were making the transition into staff positions and climbing the career ladder, what was I supposed to rationally think?
Fortunately, BBC Sport Interactive and BBC World Service, whom I also freelanced for, offered me, in a rather circuitous fashion, a staff position whilst I was doing a master’s degree at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. I grabbed it with both hands. What followed, as they say, is career history.
In my travels as a football journalist, throughout the length and breadth of the globe, I have to admit that, by and large, I have been treated with courtesy and respect by the sport’s personalities, officials, and professional colleagues, some of whom have become very close friends.
And I have never had an ugly experience at a football ground. But I will never forget my first visit to Real Madrid, after the 1998 World Cup, to interview Croatia’s Davor Suker, who emerged as that tournament’s Golden Boot winner.
As I entered the Bernabeu to watch a La Liga game between Real Madrid and Valencia, I was meandering, innocently, through the stands to my press seat, when I unknowingly took a wrong turn.
“Hey!” shouted a Spanish colleague, in English. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked. “I am trying to get to my press seat,” I replied. And then came the stern warning: “Where you are trying to pass through is controlled by the Ultra Sur (the right-wing extremist supporters group at Real). It is very, very dangerous for a black person to pass through that area, okay?”
His concern, for what he obviously saw as my close shave with harm, made him point me to a much safer route, for which I thanked him. Was I really that close to being violently attacked at one of football’s most famous grounds? It is a question for which, fortunately, I will never get an answer. The other sour moment was during a trip I made to Russia, at the invitation of the country’s 2018 World Cup bid Committee in September 2010, ahead of their successful result.
Andreas Herren, whom I have a good relationship with – which began while he was FIFA’s head of media – was in charge of managing the Russian bid’s international media strategy.
Whilst travelling on the last leg of our press tour (I was the only black person amongst the group of international journalists), on a high-speed train from St Petersburg to Moscow, a tactless female official of the Russian bid – whose name I still remember - made an off-hand, nasty remark to me, about “how you probably don’t like white people very much”, when she was clearly the socially awkward one. It took Andrew Warshaw, an English colleague who writes for InsideWorldFootball, to calm me down as I was incensed by the crass remark.
I never, inexplicably, told Andreas – who treats me with the greatest of respect – what happened. He might be reading about it on these pages for the first time. For that, I am truly sorry, my friend… I should have kept you in the loop.
Racism via others
Outside the personal sphere, I have heard and chronicled, in detail, the experiences of many African players that ply their trade in the professional leagues of Europe, suffering unbearable indignities at football grounds, from racist colleagues, officials and fans, as well as in their social lives.
When visiting an African player at Dortmund, the reigning champions of Germany, he related to me an instance of how a coach sternly warned him and other black players, before they travelled for a particular Bundesliga game, not to have a night on the town because of the high level of racial intolerance in the city. And this was not in the 1970s or the 1980s, but in the last decade.
He also told me of how Otto Addo, of Ghanaian descent but born and brought up in Germany, was routinely stopped by the city’s police and asked to identify himself, even when they clearly knew who he was – a Dortmund player and that, more importantly, he had done nothing wrong. Or is it about how an ex-Barcelona player confessed that the only reason he and his friends were admitted into the city’s best nightclubs, despite their colour, was because he wore the Catalan Red and Blue, knowing first-hand how black “nobodies” were routinely turned away at the door?
Or how Jay-Jay Okocha and Anthony Yeboah, both influential players at Eintracht Frankfurt, were forced to leave the Bundesliga because a manager that clearly disliked black players had taken charge? A colleague and friend who works at Kicker, Germany’s leading football magazine, admitted to me that the coach concerned was known to be racially biased.
“Osasu,” my friend said to me, “I am German but I have to say the truth. Black people are not treated well in football here. It is the reality. It is, sadly, an unfortunate legacy of our history.”
Tales like these, or the well-publicised travails of striker Samuel Eto’o, the four-time African footballer of the year, during his lengthy sojourn in the Spanish La Liga, where he ate a banana thrown at him by a racist fan, in a public, humourous attempt to dis-empower the stinging nature of the racist act, are not uncommon. Who can forget the litany of monkey noises and other disgusting chants directed at John Barnes when he started his Liverpool career in England?
The English FA has done well since John Barnes’ days, but it is unlikely that Spain and other European national federations similarly plagued, will take any serious attempt to confront racism if UEFA, European football’s governing body, which ought to be in the forefront of the fight, has a president, Michel Platini, who clearly has a challenging time understanding the magnitude of the problem and the need for the imposition of draconian sanctions to serve as an appropriate deterrent.
The “home nations” – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – are, fortunately, way ahead of their continental counterparts, even though the controversy that followed the exclusion of Rio Ferdinand by England manager Roy Hodgson, from the team that went to the recent European Championship, shows Britain is no racial utopia.
It beggars belief that the Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner could be handed a whopping fine of nearly $127,000 by UEFA, for pulling down his shorts to display underwear advertising whilst celebrating a goal against Portugal. But the racist abuse of the Italian striker of Ghanaian descent, Mario Balotelli (original name Mario Barwuah) by Croatian fans at the same tournament, only deserved a $100,000 fine.
This clearly indicates that UEFA’s disciplinary committee regards racism as a misdemeanour, whilst the infraction of UEFA’s on-field commercial rights is a hanging offence. The pyramid of crimes has been perversely inverted, well and truly.
It is for this reason that, I supported the motion that “Balotelli is right that football players should walk off the pitch if they are racially abused”, which was the subject of the Intelligence Squared/Google Debate that took place in London.
Owing to internet connectivity challenges in Nigeria, I was unable to join my co-debaters, Musa Okwonga and novelist Anthony Clavane, who fortunately ensured we won that argument, against credible opposition, including Philippe Auclair, the France Football writer and author of a first-rate biography on Eric Cantona, as well as the former Manchester United player Louis Saha.
I never thought the day would come when I would be on the same side of any thought divide with the erratic, impetuous, sometimes plain daft but technically gifted Balotelli. Confronting racism has a way of uniting even the strangest of bedfellows. And arm twisting, torturing even, football’s authorities, for the purpose of excising the insidious, ravaging cancer of racism from our sport is, I would contend, a price well worth paying.
Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian 1986 Nobel Laureate for Literature, wrote in his prison memoirs, that “The man dies in him who keeps silent in the face of tyranny”. Replacing “tyranny” with the word “racism” is fitting and appropriate.
(For weekly reports and comments on the state of African football, visit www.footballisafrica.com)