New FIFA policy “innovative”, “at the forefront”

For many years, football used to be an example of a perfectionised monoculture with vast biases. The global association, FIFA, reaches millions or billions of people so that their new anti-discrimination policy is a key move.

After almost 15 years without any major changes, FIFA has updated its Disciplinary Code between late 2018 and the summer of 2019. It includes explicit statements regarding anti-discrimination, which can already be applied two weeks after their publication: The president of one German Premier League club has made fiercely racist public statements which have prompted significant interventions. Now, eyes are on FIFA as well to see if the litmus test will produce a red flag.

An anti-diversity heritage

“It is not that football players, managers or fans have been better or worse people”, analyses The D&I Engineer, Michael Stuber, “it’s the interrelatedness of implicit norms, big business and personalised leadership that made football a very particular culture and a system that is very hard to become diversity-friendly beyond symbolic campaigns”. A large amount studies showed, over decades, the numerous tensions this sport has in relation to Diversity and, more specifically, the classical topics of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. The biggest promotion of diversity in football is often overlooked: It is anti-classist. For the sport has enabled a large number of underprivileged boys (yes, usually boys) to realise their full potential and have an international dream career.

An international, multi-cultural sport with nationalism and racism

Football can be seen as a pioneer of globalisation: Since many years, international transfers and teams have formed an inter-cultural reality. This includes, however, some strictness in how origin and nationality is framed: (foreign) Players can join local teams for decades but would never be included in the respective National team – for which they would have to return ‘home’ (sic). The ugly face of Nationalism became most clear – on both sides of the equation – in the case of German superstar Mesut Özil, who was attacked for posing with the President of Turkey (the country where both his parents were born). The clashes led Özil to leave the German National Team and illustrate how fragile the proclaimed integrative power of football is when racism or nationalism (or other –isms?) are concerned.

Modernising football, FIFA and it confederations

International football stars may serve as icons but they cannot beat the statistics that show the mono-cultural nature of the sport: It is male-dominated and with huge privileges for men at all levels, often sexist (let’s remember the attacks on female commentators), widely homophobic, ageist by default and out on the field, the multiculturalism erodes quickly (below average number of ethnic minorities in the lower leagues where ‘they’ play in their own clubs). Over recent years, the reality has reached the point where it was inevitable for football to address these issues. Some confederations or associations developed a comprehensive Diversity strategy while others sliced it up to run anti-racism campaigns and separate gender or anti-homophobia programmes. Even FIFA, the inerrable ivory tower, understood that it had to move – particularly in the aftermath of nepotism and other scandals. In 2016, it has created a new vision under the leadership of the new President, Gianni Infantini. Within this context, a new disciplinary code has been developed “in consultation with the six confederations and other key football stakeholders”, as FIFA emphasises.

Strong leadership or over-confidence? The test cases will tell

The communication around the new code mentions a surprising amount of optical elements (“better structured, clearer, more concise (down from 147 articles to 72), more transparent”), while it says that “content-wise, topics like racism and discrimination have been updated”, which according to FIFA, puts them “at the forefront” of the fight against appalling attacks on fundamental human rights of individuals. Actually, strong statements are included such as

“the principle of zero tolerance on racism and any form of discrimination has been updated in line with FIFA President’s recent statement to the effect that discrimination has no place in football and FIFA will not hesitate to tackle any form of discriminatory behaviour.”

Such a consistent approach will for sure put FIFA at the forefront of the development in their own area (of football). In comparison with global, leading-edge D&I policies, however, it does not necessarily appear particularly far-reaching, as further commitments, for example to conduct thorough analysis and aim at ongoing improvements, are missing.

When a superrich football friend says something super inappropriate

Regardless of the actual design, the new Code is a big step for FIFA and it appears to be much-needed: Just two weeks after its publication, a racism scandal hit the German Soccer League and hence DFB, Germany’s Football Association. Schalke chairman, Clemens Tönnies, talked about Africans as “cutting down trees” and “making babies” in the context of climate-change statements. Public backlash, including from the Minister of Justice, made him apologise and call his own words “wrong, rash and thoughtless”, insisting he supported “the fight against racism, discrimination and exclusion”. For his ‘friends’, this was enough so that things could simply go on. For the Public and for experts, Tönnies’ shallow apology isn’t even close to showing understanding for what happened, let alone for what must happen to start reversing the huge damage which was not only created during his speech to 1,600 crafts entrepreneurs but also through the publicity his words obtained based on his positions. Consequently, the Ethics Committee of DFB will consider the case Aug, 15, and the Public is curious about the outcomes of that (they might simply rap his knuckles) and also how FIFA will follow through on its public commitment from just two weeks ago.

We have asked FIFA to comment on the case as it relates to the 2019 Disciplinary Code, awaiting their response

What the Corporate world – and we ourselves – could do

When we speak about the world of football, people sometimes seem to forget who has created this system and how it is being maintained.

  • Large events as well as professional clubs are financed by broadcasting fees (the largest share of financing) and millions from corporate sponsors (all these funds from all their customers regardless if they are football fans or not)
  • Entrance fees and merchandising are paid by the football fans (at their choice) and add smaller parts of the overall budget

European premier league clubs currently generate an average revenue of GBP 261m per club and a regional total in excess of GBP 5 bn.

In each country, the lead sponsors of the top clubs (> 10m p.a.) as well as National teams are Blue Chip corporations, most of whom do have robust D&I initiatives in place. “We could and should expect these sponsors to link their engagement more firmly with proclaimed D&I values as well as with a thorough follow-through on these,” comments Stuber on the linkage.

Ironically, the main sponsor of Schalke04, the club where the latest racism case has happened, is Gazprom. 

Ultimately, the individual consumer also has the power and opportunity to provide feedback to companies or choose their consumptions based on sponsorship or public behaviour. For Mr. Tönnies, this could mean that his substantial organic meat business might get under pressure. Also because along with his racist comments he was quoted to be an opponent of environmental policies – putting quite some doubt over his ecological meat production as well.

The way diversity can be role modelled in football is shown by Catalan football coach, Pep Guardiola, who is currently working in the England where his team won every title.

Journalist: “How does it feel to be the first team in history to win every title in England?”
Pep Guardiola: “It was the first time in men’s football. Women have already done it.” 


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Snapshots of FIFA’s anti-discrimination approach:

  • The scope, definition and content of our anti-racism and anti-discrimination vision have been fully aligned with the highest international standards, including the prosecution of any discrimination on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation, language, religion, political opinion, wealth, birth or any other status or any other reason;
  • As a general rule, a match is automatically forfeited if the referee decides to abandon it after having applied the three-step procedure for discriminatory incidents;
  • For reoffenders involved in racist or discriminatory incidents or if the circumstances of the case require it, the disciplinary measures now include the implementation of a prevention plan to foster education on diversity and fight discrimination in football.
  • Also, FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee may permit the victim to make a statement, allowing the latter to participate in the proceedings. FIFA will not let down victims of racist abuse.