Black History Month: On and Off the Pitch

14th October 2021



Manny Boateng – Founder

There was a tension felt across the world as the expectations and dreams of footballing glory came down to a moment. A moment that 55 years of hurt and the euphoric ecstasy of 56 million people hinged on. A moment whose responsibility lay at the feet of 19 year old Bukayo Saka, who had followed his teammates Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho, and Marcus Rashford in having a breakthrough season on and off the pitch.

For Black fans, the tension compounded with the knowledge of that moment representing the society we and football exist in – where being respected as a Black person requires excellence, to "overcome" and shoot goals into an impenetrable net.

Football holds a mirror to society: the good, the bad, and the ugly. At the beginning of the 2020/21 season, there were 92 Premier League and English Football League (EFL) managers or head coaches. Of this 92, only five were Black or ethnic minorities.

Of the 1.5 million children playing organised football, only 180 will make it pro. For the kids who leave academies without an offer on a team, where is the support and career opportunities for them? 0.012% chance of success isn't something that a child can safely pin their future on.

The lack of Black talent represented in the business of football must increase drastically. When the people with the most barriers to access aren't in the rooms where decisions are made, there's a knock-on effect for the entire industry in success, fair treatment, access, and representation. Management must reflect society, and encourage young people from Black and minoritised ethnic backgrounds to aspire to management at the top leagues, and know they'll be advocated for where it matters.

I set up Young Pro Group in 2020 to be the true home of football, where we pull up the ancient turf and lay down one that all are welcome on.

By 2030, we want to provide 10,000 opportunities for diverse young talent in football. Although this is a bullish effort, our nation's favourite sport is based on teamwork and so are we.

Our team of football experts educate and support our 'Young Pros' to demystify careers in football, and work with clubs and corporates to offer kids from all backgrounds the opportunities to kick these careers off. Increasing representation across all areas of football is a crucial step to making the game fairer for all.

We urge the FA, Premier League and the EFL to show they are ready to take action in eradicating racism on and off the pitch, by supporting our mission and bringing clubs and corporates on board too. Funders like UnLtd support our work with grants, but we need the support of industry bodies to be truly impactful and make change that makes football truly a pride and joy for all.

We have thousands of young people showing interest in football careers, and want organisations involved with Football to create the necessary spaces for them to thrive. We urge corporates and clubs work in formal partnership with us, to establish an apprenticeship programme that shows diverse youth commercial career opportunities.

Playing football as a young Black boy was everything. It was the only activity I looked forward to, to express myself, meet up with friends and meet new people. It was where we gained bragging rights, and developed a competitive spirit couched in comradery.

I dreamed of a football career, and being a player was the only option I knew. It was everyone's dream to win a golden boot, but

I wish that as a young Black boy I'd known that there were options other than the highly competitive roles of coaching or being a football scout, and that social mobility through a football career isn't just reserved for people on the pitch. If I knew about the other options, not going pro wouldn't have been such a disappointment.

The trauma of the result of the game was felt not only by Saka, Sancho and Rashford.

We instantly felt for our lives, knowing our Blackness put us at risk of being attacked heading home, and that we needed to urgently check on the safety and whereabouts of our loved ones.

I wish I could say I surprised when the news of the monkey emojis and death threats started rolling in, and I'm sure any Black person shares this lack of surprise. This is the sad truth we face. You are celebrated only for a moment when you win and eternally defamed when you lose.

Racism has been part of the great game for as long as I remember, but that doesn't make it any easier to deal with. We can guide and prepare our 'Young Pros' into future career and development opportunities – and help them with making well-informed decisions – but we can't change the culture of football on our own.

The way Marcus Rashford was spoken about reflects the exact change football, and society needs to make. A young man who played extraordinarily had to clarify that he would never apologise for where he came from, or the campaigning he did for kids like him to have food.

While Rashford is a success story, hundreds of thousands of kids are still left behind. Half of adults from the lowest socio-economic groups have had no training since leaving school.

A lack of opportunity and access to upskilling severely limits career progression in a world of both high unemployment and competition for living wage roles.

Diversity has been at the heart of policy and inquests for many a year, but we are very far from being a nation that embraces and respects identities we see as other. A government survey found only one in four (25%) people from black and ethnic minority groups believed we live in a fair society.

The Euro 2020 Final was historic in so many ways. Even if the outcome wasn't what we had hoped for, the team is still worth celebrating. We should celebrate that the England men's team made a major tournament final for the first time since 1966, and that we had the best squad we've seen in years.

We can celebrate Raheem Sterling, who led the line as England's top scorer throughout the knockout stages with three goals. Without his impact, England would not have made it out of the group. Yet even this was marred by racism, where players like Sterling received little to no recognition or positive coverage for their efforts.

We know that Black excellence attracts racism, and this past month of national pride was the same, soured by the racism that's been part of football for the past 50+ years. Fans remember the legendary John Barnes' running joke that he was labelled English after a good game and Jamaican after a bad game.

But the final showed that racism is not a thing of the past - Antonio Rüdiger's article in The Players' Tribune about the horrific racism he experienced playing throughout Europe, or the England fans booing the players for taking the knee in protest against racism are both recent examples of this.

For fans and non-fans alike, we all walked a road to the final paved by togetherness and hope – something we collectively needed after 18 months of generally bad news and grief. But after feeling incomparable joy, racism reminded us that it will continue to plague football – and England - until we take steps to eradicate it on and off the pitch.

Check out the video here

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