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How English soccer sidelines Black coaches

How English soccer sidelines Black coaches

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

LONDON — Last fall, Sol Campbell made a decision steeped in bittersweet catharsis: He would no longer apply for jobs as a manager in English professional soccer. It was sweet because it provided the Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal legend a measure of closure to a post-playing career filled with more frustration than joy. Bitter because admitting defeat is not in Campbell’s nature.

“I’ve been pushed into this,” he says with a sigh of resignation. Years of getting passed over for one job after another, he adds, “makes me not trust the sport anymore. And I’ve given so much to the sport.”

What’s worse, Campbell says, is how many of his Black peers have similar stories to tell — of authoring storied careers on the pitch, often enduring frequent and visceral racism, only to discover that the hard-earned reverence of the English soccer establishment stops at the palace gates. Many of those peers, like Campbell, have given up on trying to break through.

Now, for the first time, those aspiring Black managers and coaches have the data to back up their claims. According a study commissioned by the advocacy group Black Footballers Partnership and published in 2022, 43 percent of the players in the English Premier League, arguably the world’s top professional league, are Black, along with 34 percent of players across the three tiers of the country’s mega-popular English Football League. Yet across all four divisions, the group found, only 4.4 percent of managing/coaching jobs and 1.6 percent of executive positions in the game go to Black candidates.

“When it comes to management, we’re the forgotten men,” Campbell says. “The forgotten men of football.”

At 49, still fit and fashionable, Campbell retains the air of English football royalty, which he is. One of the greatest center-backs in the nation’s history — a stalwart of “The Invincibles,” Arsenal’s storied 2003-04 squad that went undefeated on its way to the Premier League title — he earned 73 caps for the “Three Lions,” as Englanders call their national team, between 1996-2007. When he rises from his chair and stretches his hand out for a firm shake, Campbell appears every bit the physical presence that once prompted Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger to say of him, “It was as if he was indestructible, such a power spread from him.”

But since retiring in 2012, Campbell’s quest to remain in the game has left him diminished, at least psychologically. His two coaching stints, for financially strapped lower-tier clubs, yielded unsurprising results and were followed by years of rejection. And while he was bumping up against what the BFP calls the sport’s “grass ceiling,” White peers were getting better initial opportunities, climbing the ladder faster and receiving second and third chances, even after failures.

“It takes so much out of your soul, your will to love a sport after being really, really excellent at it,” Campbell says. “It’s sad. If I had had three or four chances with a good club and a good budget, and I failed miserably, I’d say, ‘You know what? Maybe I can’t do it.’ But I haven’t had the opportunities of some of my [White] peers.”

Both the demographic math and the outcry will sound familiar to fans of the NFL. Football, the American kind, holds similar sway in the United States as football, the international kind, does over England, and the NFL has grappled for years with accusations of institutional racism for the disparity between Black representation on the field and in the head coaching ranks.

But there are both obvious and subtle differences between the situations, from the histories of the Black diaspora in each country to their distinct demographic makeups to how each sport is governed.

Perhaps most importantly, English football has a national governing body — the Football Association (FA), which administers England’s national teams and retains partial oversight of its professional leagues — that does not exist in American football. It’s a distinction that should — or at least could — make it easier to regulate the hiring practices of private companies.

But the FA “has completely refused to use that power,” says Stefan Szymanski, a University of Michigan sport management professor and co-author of the influential book, “Soccernomics,” who authored the BFP’s data report. “And it has far less of an excuse than, say, [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell. … The FA has the power [to mandate]: ‘To be a football owner, you have to have a license from the FA. And one of the conditions of having a license is you subscribe to this mandatory [diversity, equality and inclusion] policy.’”

In both England and America, the bottom lines remain the same: Black candidates believe too often they are shut out of coaching and management jobs because of cronyism if not outright racism, leaving the distinct impression their sport values them only for their athleticism and physicality, and not for their intellects.

“We’re good enough to be the best on the pitch,” Campbell says. “The stats are there. Incredible athletes, beautiful minds, intelligent play, great defenders, goalkeepers, the whole game. But it doesn’t translate to managing. Why? We don’t have what it takes to be managers? It’s sad and crude, and almost archaic.”

In an emailed response to questions from The Washington Post, Mark Bullingham, chief executive officer of the FA, acknowledged the slow pace of change, but said the organization’s commitment to improving minority representation is “unwavering.”

The lack of progress, Bullingham said, “is very disappointing and something we’re determined to change within our game.” But he added, moving the sport away from the “old recruitment practices that focused on personal networks” — i.e., cronyism — is “a longstanding challenge.”

Though no definitive accounting exists, the Premier League, which formed in 1992 and is said to be the most-watched sports league in the world, is believed to have seen only 12 Black managers (a role roughly analogous to a head coach in American sports), including two who only served as interims. The NFL, by contrast, will go into the 2024 season having had 28 Black head coaches since 1989, including six currently.

Two of the Premier League’s 20 clubs are currently led by Black men, neither of them native Englishmen: Burnley’s Vincent Kompany, a native of Belgium, and Nuno Espirito Santo of Nottingham Forest, a native of Portugal. In the three lower leagues that make up the EFL, only four of the 72 clubs at the start of the 2023-24 season had Black managers.

And while Black representation in managing and coaching jobs is in line with the country’s overall demographics — roughly 4 percent of England’s population identifies as Black — it is far below what is represented on the pitch. In the Premier League alone, 225 out of 527 players (43 percent) who appeared in games during the 2020-21 season were Black, according to the BFP. (Since determining how every player in English professional soccer self-identifies by race would be unwieldy to the point of being impossible, the BFP used photos to categorize players by race.)

Richard Masters, chief executive of the Premier League, declined an interview request for this story, and a Premier League spokesman referred a reporter to an earlier statement from Masters acknowledging the disparity and saying, “We need to do more about that… This is a continued priority for us.”

The Post also contacted 14 Premier League teams — including all nine with significant American ownership interests — seeking interviews with their owners or chief executives. Four responded by declining the requests; the others did not respond.

“It’s pretty awful,” Clive Betts, a Member of Parliament from the Labour Party representing Sheffield in north-central England, said of the disparity between Black representation on the pitch and on the touch line. “It’s a matter of systemic discrimination.”

It is a situation ex-footballers such as Campbell are trying to change. In 2021, a group of them, part of a WhatsApp group that got revved up during the pandemic, organized under the umbrella of the BFP. By leveraging media coverage, governmental interests and its own collective voice, the group has managed to thrust the issue into England’s national consciousness, at a pivotal time that finds the county’s national game at a moment of reckoning.

MANY OF THE BLACK PLAYERS who integrated English soccer in the 1970s and 1980s were the sons of the nation’s first wave of Black immigrants from the Caribbean — labeled the “Windrush Generation.” Named for the first passenger ship to arrive at Tilbury Docks in Essex, they were invited from British colonies in the late 1940s and 1950s to help rebuild England after World War II. What they found was a sport that wasn’t ready for them.

“People were openly racist,” says Chris Ramsey, whose parents immigrated from St. Lucia and whose 13-year pro career began with Brighton & Hove Albion in 1980. “You would hear it on the pitch, in your changing room, in the streets, in the shops — the N-word. That was normal. You’d get chased by skinheads.”

Decades later, with Queens Park Rangers, Ramsey would spend the 2014-15 season as the only Black manager in the Premier League, and only the third in history — a short-lived stint that so far has failed to lead to another opportunity. Now 61 and unemployed, Ramsey figures he is “putting myself at risk” for speaking out about the lack of opportunities for Black ex-footballers.

“Metaphorically,” Ramsey says, “I’m still getting chased.”

It is a familiar feeling for those of Ramsey’s generation.

“We were the first generation of Black players,” says Ricky Hill, 64, who, as a star midfielder for Luton Town in the 1980s, helped lift the club to England’s First Division (which later rebranded as the Premier League). From ages 6 to 36, he says, he never played for a single Black coach or manager. “And we were the first generation of Black wannabe coaches trying to change the landscape again.

“This fight is so much harder than the first fight. In the first fight, my talent was obvious for those who wanted to look at it. But my talent as a manager is invisible. It’s based on perception.”

Younger generations have found the landscape as inhospitable as the pioneers.

Michael Johnson, whose 19-year playing career (1991-2009) included a nine-season stint with Premier League club Birmingham City, estimates he spent between 30,000 and 40,000 British pounds (about $38,000 to $50,000) to secure the licenses required to be a top-level professional manager in England — a lengthy, multitiered process with no real parallel in American sports. He’s since applied for more than 50 job openings since 2014. Yet, he says, he’s landed only seven or eight interviews, none of which included another Black person among the club representatives who interviewed him. And he’s gotten zero job offers.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t apply anymore,” Johnson says. “I’ve been doing this since 2014, and the numbers [of Black managers] haven’t changed. I’m still sitting here talking about the same issues. And unless there’s some real interventions put in place, I’m probably going to be retired and talking about this same subject 20 years later.”

Like others, Johnson, who’s now 50, had to take an alternate route to remain in the sport. He first went abroad to manage, a successful stint guiding the national team of Guyana. When that failed to lead to a job in England, he took a position with the FA as a liaison between the English national teams and current professional players.

Ramsey and Hill spent years coaching in overseas pro leagues, too, while Campbell is starting an analytics-focused, online coaching program that he hopes to launch around the 2026 World Cup. None wanted to go those routes, but felt they had no other choice.

“I need a job. I need to work. Money runs out,” Campbell says. “I also want to fulfill myself. I don’t want to be 80 years old and say, ‘Oh, I should have done this or that.’ I don’t want to let my fire get extinguished by them.”

But that fatalism, while understandable, appears to be creating a doom cycle that’s difficult to break. The BFP report found that only 14 percent of prospective managers who complete their Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) professional license — the highest qualification and one necessary to be a manager in the Premier League — are Black.

Paul Davis, a Black ex-midfielder who spent 16 seasons with Arsenal, tried for nearly a decade to land a full-time managing or coaching job before giving up. In 2016, he joined the FA’s coaching development department, helping prospective coaches navigate the licensing process. From his insider’s perch, he sees the entire system as “biased against Black players going further in the game.”

“It’s institutional,” Davis, 62, says.

Both Johnson and Davis, as Black men employed by the FA, are measured in how they discuss institutional racism in the English game, and both take the optimistic view that they can do more to effect change from inside the game than from outside.

“The numbers are frightening,” Davis says. “I can’t just sit back and stay quiet.”

One other critical difference between the NFL and English soccer: While the NFL workforce is almost exclusively U.S.-born, nearly two-thirds of Premier League players and a little more than half of EFL players, both Black and White, are foreign born. At least some of them choose to return to their home countries after their playing days are over.

Simon Jordan, the former owner of Crystal Palace and now a leading television and podcast commentator on soccer, argues that makes the BFP’s data misleading. The share of Black ex-players who stay in England to pursue coaching, he says, must be significantly smaller than the 43 percent who make up Premier League rosters or the 34 percent in the EFL.

“The [discrimination] issue is still there,” says Jordan, who is White. “It still needs to be addressed. But when you begin to pare those figures back a little bit, it doesn’t become quite as stark.”

During his 10-year tenure owning Crystal Palace (now owned by a group that includes Washington Commanders owner Josh Harris), Jordan says he changed managers nine times, drawing by his estimation a total of perhaps 100 applicants — but not a single one Black.

Meantime, it is believed only one of the 92 clubs that make up the EPL and EFL has Black majority ownership: Burton Albion in League One, owned by insurance magnate Ben Robinson, who is biracial.

“I genuinely don’t believe the English game is structurally racist,” Jordan says. “I would certainly like to see, and I think most people would like to see, the talent pool of Black players converting into Black coaches. [The issue] is how do you take away the hysteria, how do you take away the … agendas, and turn it into a grown-up conversation where people can get to the bottom line?”

But those who do see racism as a persistent and systemic problem in English football likewise have no shortage of evidence, even beyond what’s contained in the BFP data report, to bolster their case.

Following the final of the 2020 European Football Championship, in which three Black English players — Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka — missed penalty kicks in a crushing loss to Italy, the players were subjected to racist abuse online and on their social media accounts, prompting condemnation from the FA, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and others.

Later that same year, Greg Clarke, the chairman of the FA at the time, was forced to resign after using derogatory language about Black players (whom he referred to as “colored footballers”), south Asian people, LGBTQ people and women in a committee hearing before Parliament.

“It’s one and the same story,” says Bell Ribeiro-Addy, a Black woman and Member of Parliament (Labour) representing suburban Streatham, south of London. “We’re looking at a situation where people are clearly being discriminated against because of the color of their skin. … It’s particularly appalling in sport, because sport has always been meant to be a place of equality.”

WHEN ENGLISH SOCCER decided to confront coaching diversity in 2016, it looked first to the NFL for inspiration, co-opting a controversial and mostly toothless measure in the “Rooney Rule,” which mandates interviews for minority candidates for every head coach opening. The EFL extracted even more of its teeth.

The results were perhaps unsurprising. Unlike the NFL, the EFL at first made its version of the Rooney Rule voluntary, with only 10 of its 72 teams signing on for the pilot season of 2016-17. It would be three more years before the league made the rule mandatory. The early versions also contained a massive loophole, allowing exemptions for clubs with only one, pre-identified candidate.

Meanwhile, the Premier League, whose 20 clubs represent the pinnacle of English soccer, has not implemented a version of the Rooney Rule. Instead, it has put in place a series of “schemes,” or initiatives, to address the same issues: the Coach Inclusion Diversity Scheme, a developmental program to train prospective coaches; the Professional Player to Coach Scheme, an accelerated program akin to an internship that provides candidates a 23-month placement with a club; and the Player to Executive Pathway Scheme, which provides similar support for players hoping to transition to front-office or executive jobs.

The FA, which oversees both the amateur and professional games, made its first serious foray into the diversity mission in 2020 with the “Football Leadership Diversity Code,” featuring hiring targets for diverse candidates across the professional leagues. But the code was voluntary, and only a little more than half of the 92 clubs in the top four divisions signed on.

When the FA released a report in 2022 saying clubs “exceeds targets of hiring Black, Asian and mixed heritage candidates” — with, for example, minority candidates making up 22 percent of new senior coaching hires — the news was met with puzzlement by many whose own experiences in the game told a different story. There was a reason for the discrepancy: the FA was only tabulating the data of clubs that signed onto the diversity code and self-reported their figures.

Enter the Black Footballers Partnership, which commissioned its own report, headed by the University of Michigan’s Szymanski. It told a different story, accusing the FA of creating “the illusion of diversity” without confronting the underlying issues.

“They claimed their initiative was making progress and being successful,” Szymanski says of the FA. “But we went through the numbers, and it was just completely failing.”

The FA backtracked, acknowledging in November that it is “falling short.”

Bullingham, the CEO of the FA, says the Football Leadership Diversity Code was merely the “beginning.” The organization will make the diversity targets and data reporting mandatory beginning with the 2024-25 season, he says, and he vowed to ramp up the FA’s efforts to recruit minority job candidates.

“Ultimately, clubs will choose the best person for the role — and rightly so,” Bullingham says, “but by ensuring that we have strong pipelines of talent and that long-term recruitment policies are in place, we will drive change.”

The scrutiny on the hiring practices of English clubs has also trickled upward to the leagues and governing bodies themselves. As the BFP frequently points out, neither the FA nor the Premier League has a Black person among its senior executive leadership.

“The FA is supposed to be the pinnacle,” says 57-year-old Les Ferdinand, a former striker who scored 149 goals (12th all-time) during a 14-year Premier League career and later went on to serve as sporting director (roughly akin to a general manager in the United States) for Queens Park Rangers. “If you’re supposed to be setting an example, you’re not setting a very good one.”

Bullingham says 16 percent of the FA’s workforce and 30 percent of its board of directors are from minority backgrounds. “Of course,” he says, “we are working to further diversify.”

For years, the powers that run English soccer could count on a lack of political wherewithal from the Black coaching community. Whenever a compelling, first-person account of discrimination appeared in a London newspaper, it was destined to be forgotten quickly. The community lacked the size, power and organization to cause much trouble. It also lacked allies.

“It’s become so normalized that there would only be three or four or five [Black] managers out of 92 [teams], even among those who understand it’s unfair, no one is up in arms about it. It’s just part of life,” Hill says. “We don’t have allies. We have people who are sympathetic. But people who are willing to stand alongside us and take the actions necessary? I don’t think we’re there.”

The formation of the BFP in 2021 was a critical first step. Co-founder Delroy Corinaldi, a former political operative, public-affairs consultant and corporate strategist, has a contacts list full of government officials and members of the soccer media elite, and he has mined both to keep the pressure on the sport’s leaders.

English soccer leagues “have the best marketing campaigns around, in effect saying, ‘We need to do something,’ because they recognize there is an issue: ‘No room for racism.’ ‘Let’s kick [racism] out,’” Corinaldi says, citing two slogans used by English leagues to promote inclusion. “What we’re asking them to do is to not just recognize [the problem] and bring it into public consciousness through marketing campaigns. We’re actually saying, ‘Through your policy and procedures, do something.’ ”

With the arrival of the BFP, England’s Black coaching community, a disparate group spanning generations and ethnic heritages, found a collective voice. Among other things, Corinaldi, a former soccer player who apprenticed in Arsenal’s vaunted youth program, has arranged face-to-face meetings for BFP members with high-ranking government officials and soccer leadership, including Bullingham.

The WhatsApp group with Black former players now numbers more than 200, and members frequently post news articles, words of encouragement and the occasional job opening. It has engendered a sense of unity among an otherwise far-flung and loosely bonded group. The next step is harnessing its collective power.

“Do we have the stamina, the staying power?” Ferdinand asks. “It’s great to have this group. But how far can we push it?”

LAST NOVEMBER, FROM A THRONE on the floor of Parliament, King Charles III, in his first King’s Speech as the British Monarch, broke a significant bit of soccer news: The government would soon appoint an independent regulator for the sport, to “safeguard the future of football clubs for the benefit of communities and fans.”

Part of a sweeping Football Governance Bill, the appointment appeared designed to avoid a repeat of the 2021 “Super League” fiasco, in which a proposed breakaway league threatened to upend the Premier League’s cultural dominance. But in the eyes of the BFP, the legislation, while primarily focused on economics, also offered a potential mechanism to force English soccer to fix its diversity problem.

“The only time we have seen substantial, practical advances in the last 50 years is with civil rights legislation — where you actually put it into law,” Szymanski said. “Putting regulations and laws in place is the thing that’s worked. But that’s the thing everyone resists now: ‘You can’t legislate for equality!’ Well, in fact, you can.”

Ribeiro-Addy, the Labour Party MP, points out England has “fantastic” equality laws, but the challenge is in enforcing them. A regulator, she says, could “hone it down to specific actions.”

“At the end of the day, if you want to operate as a football club within our country, you have to comply with the law,” she says. “And if we change the law, that’s exactly what they’d have to do.”

However, with the bill still to be written, even Ribeiro-Addy doubts there is the political will — or the votes — to empower the independent regulator with such wide-ranging, noneconomic powers. The current, unstable political climate in England also adds to the uncertainty

As a result, advocates are pushing for a “holding” clause — also called a “Henry VIII clause” — that would allow the regulator’s powers to be expanded at some unspecified point in the future when the prevailing political climate would permit it.

“If we can get that in the bill, it might start to at least concentrate the football powers’ minds that is has got to do something,” says Betts, the MP from Sheffield. “It would signal to the leagues: ‘You’re on notice. Something is going to be done if you don’t.’”

One potential pathway: Since 2004, English professional soccer has operated under a “fit-and-proper person” test, whereby owners can be disqualified for failing to meet certain financial or conflict-of-interest policies. A diversity requirement, mandating specific targets, could be added to the test.

The FA, in its official response to the proposed Football Governance Bill, recommended the independent regulator endorse the diversity targets and data reporting that the FA will put in place next season. It didn’t address the issue of expanding the regulator’s power.

Meanwhile, the English soccer establishment is pushing, through both behind-the-scenes and public lobbying, to limit the independent regulator’s powers.

“I objected to the independent regulator because I believe in most industries, any regulation and over-governance stifles and kills entrepreneurial and commercial thinking,” says Jordan, the former owner of Crystal Palace. “And overregulation emphatically does that.”

But the Black ex-footballers agitating for change have already seen what happens when the sport’s powers are entrusted with policing their own diversity policies. They have been watching it play out for decades, and they have the mental and emotional scars to prove it. As much as they want to believe things will one day be different, their own experiences tell them not to count on it.

“There’s a lot of talk, but there’s no policies in place, really,” Campbell said. “It’s a circle that’s not being broken. Different characters talking, but the same outcome: nothing changes. The policies are there. It’s all written down. But that, and becoming reality, are a universe apart. And eventually, people like me will run out of time.”

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