Systematic Prejudice in Football: Who are the Latest Victims?

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 14: Raheem Sterling of England controls the ball during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia 3rd Place Playoff match between Belgium and England at Saint Petersburg Stadium on July 14, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)

Football has come a long way in the last 50 years. From the first black footballer to represent England in 1971, to Paul Ince being the first black captain of the England team in 1991. But are there still heavy levels of institutional and systematic racism in football?

The ways in which black players such as Raheem Sterling and Wilfried Zaha are treated suggests that racism is still profound in modern football.

Harsh Critics and Poor Decisions, or Something More Serious?

Why Do the Media Dislike Raheem Sterling So Much?

Firstly, Raheem Sterling has clearly been systematically prejudiced since his arrival to the Premier League at Liverpool.

He has constantly been under fire from critics in the media. Whether it is for lavish spending and being ‘greedy’ for chasing a big-money transfer to Manchester City. This same level of criticism cannot be found in other players such as Wayne Rooney, who often spent lots of money on fast cars and houses. The fact that Sterling was criticised for buying his mother a house emphasises the fact the media are against Sterling.

In an interview with Ian Wright, he said: “There is an element of people at the high end of the media who want to keep that guy down. Simple.”

He then added “when you look at the wave of criticism that he takes, there is a certain amount of racism towards it- what else can it be?” Wright has a point when expressing this opinion. One moment Sterling is being criticised for purchasing his mum a house, the next he is being mocked for shopping in Poundland and Primark.

The media had a strong focus on Sterling’s ‘poor’ World Cup and seemed to ignore his tremendous part in Manchester City’s record-breaking season.

Institutional racism towards Sterling from the media has arguably led to the systematic prejudice in which he faces. The media’s practice towards him has seemingly infiltrated into football fan cultures across the country.

Did Sterling Really Have a Bad World Cup?

Proof of this is with the reviews of Sterling in the last World Cup. In the BBC’s fan rating polls, Sterling received an average rating of 4.8, the lowest of the squad. He had seven shots in the World Cup and zero goals. This is where the main criticism of Sterling in the successful tournament for England.

Primary Data – The ratings for some of the England players during the 2018 FIFA World Cup, in accordance to the BBC’s player ratings generator.

Despite this, though, Sterling lost the ball 38 times compared to attacking counterpart Harry Kane, who lost the ball 46 times. He also lost the ball fewer times than over half of the England squad.

Primary Data – The number of times that the stated England players conceded possession during the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Additionally, Sterling was constantly getting himself into good positions where he failed to receive the ball. He made the second most amount of runs over 20km/h, with a total of 159. Only Jesse Lingard made more runs. So despite the fact that Sterling outperformed many of his teammates in different areas of the pitch, he was rated one of the worst.

Primary Data – The number of runs made by the stated England players that were above 20 KM/H at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

These statistics prove that Sterling had a better World Cup than fans gave credit for. It also supports Ian Wright’s comment: “People say you are playing the racism card, but you give me a good reason why Raheem Sterling gets the stick he gets for just being a footballer.”

Alan Shearer commented on the fact that Lingard had similar stats to Sterling but received a significantly higher player rating. He praised Sterling’s performance, saying: “It was pleasing that he never stopped getting in there. Sterling wasn’t running away from the ball. He wanted to get in there and wanted to score and everyone was willing him on.”

Players Get Away With Dangerous Fouls on Zaha

Wilfred Zaha is another possible victim of systematic prejudice but on a different level. Zaha is likely to be a victim of prejudice due to referee’s decisions not to book players for fouls on him. This doesn’t suggest that referees are racist in anyway. It argues the levels of institutional racism in sport media may have increased the amount of implicit bias.

The obvious argument against this would be that all good attacking players get fouled week in week out. Robbie Savage said in an interview with Radio 5 Live that he would try and wind up players when he was playing.  He said: “I would think, ‘I’m going to try to get in their face, I’m going to niggle, I’m going to kick them’. I knew my job in the side.”

The Palace player was the second most fouled player in the Premier League last season. He was brought down a total of 359 times in 38 games. The only player to be brought down more was Eden Hazard of Chelsea.

Despite the fact Zaha was one of the most fouled players in the Premier League, players were sanctioned far less more than against other players. The most recent was Abdoulaye Doucoure’s challenge against Zaha in which he only received a yellow card. Doucoure flew in on him with both feet off the ground with strong contact on the back of his calf.

Zaha’s Frustration Backed by Manager

In an interview with the BBC after the game, he said: “I’d have to get my leg broken for anyone to get a card.” Tackles like this show that fouls on Zaha are continuing to worsen. He has already been fouled 11 times this season, with only three cards being produced. Arguably there should have been at least double the amount of yellows and at least one red card.

In comparison, referees have shown six yellow cards when Hazard has been tackled, which have been similar incidents. This generates the question: why does Hazard get the protection that Zaha doesn’t?

This season, Zaha has averaged 4.25 dribbles per game and has been fouled on average 2.75 times a game. This high amount of fouls to dribble ratio has had an effect on the mind-set of the player. Zaha has the backing of his manager Roy Hodgson where he said: “There were quite a few occasions that if those fouls were at other end on one or two of their star players there might have been a chance of getting a free-kick,”

Systematic Prejudice or Bad Calls?

Whether this is due to poor decision making or systematic prejudice remains up for discussion. But when you look closely at other players such as Sterling, the evidence is compelling. It is hard to imagine that referees unintentionally get so many decisions wrong against Zaha, but brandish so many cards for similar tackles against players like Eden Hazard.

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