Kick Racism out of Football/ Photo: Jonathan McIntosh/cropped from original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at bottom of article Kick Racism out of Football/ Photo: Jonathan McIntosh/cropped from original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at bottom of article

All young Premier League players live a glamorous lifestyle not available to most people. But only some of them get constant criticism for it, argues Euan Burns

Footballers are some of the most heavily scrutinised individuals in the UK. When your job is such a key part of the public interest though, that’s to be expected. You can’t be a quality footballer for a big club and expect to be left alone. What’s unusual with footballers though, is that the intense scrutiny about not only their on-pitch performance but also their personal lives often begins at about 17-years-old.

It’s no secret that English tabloids have an awful reputation when it comes to reporting on young footballers. The reporting is even worse when the player in question is black. The treatment that Raheem Sterling has received in the past is nothing short of a witch hunt.

The Manchester City forward has been targeted by the likes of the Daily Mail and The Sun for having a tattoo of a gun (in relevance to the murder of his father), buying his mum a house shortly after England’s EURO 2016 exit, and going for breakfast the morning after not winning the young player of the year award.  Sterling had been in the running to win the PFA Young Player of the Year award in 2018, but he was beaten to it by then teammate Leroy Sane. He went out for breakfast the next day, and the Daily Mail felt that was newsworthy and warranted criticism.

There is a host more than those three examples, and each story is to any reasonable individual a complete non-starter. Random details are included to sway public opinion against the player, such as mentioning his ‘FILTHY £50k Mercedes’, or looking ‘tired’ whilst at a party.

The hypocrisy of these stories is plain to see when compared with the coverage of another Manchester City forward’s personal life. In 2018, Phil Foden also bought his parents a house. The headline in The Sun read: ‘NO PLACE LIKE HOME: Manchester City starlet Phil Foden buys mum new £2m home aged just 18 after being brought up in modest Stockport suburb’.

The article, of which there is a very similar version in the Daily Mail, goes on to discuss how Foden still goes fishing with his dad, and does not drink. The article is in stark contrast to the one The Sun produced when Sterling bought his mum a house and shared a video of it on social media. The headline read: ‘STERLING GESTURE: Luxury pad Raheem Sterling flaunted in video hours after Euros return ‘was bought for his mum’. The article then describes Sterling as a ‘pampered star’ and said he was ‘only interested in bragging about a fleet of luxury cars and the extravagant mansion’.

Another player that recently received similar media attention is Mason Greenwood. The profile is the same. A young, black, successful footballer who is earning/will go on to earn astronomical amounts of money. It should be said that earning the amounts of money footballers earn means you will always be subjected to intense scrutiny. In these instances though, it massively oversteps the mark.

Greenwood made a bad mistake when on England duty in September 2020. He and Phil Foden invited some girls back to their hotel room whilst in Iceland, which was a major breach of COVID-19 protocols at a time when the UK was seeing a rapid rise in cases. This was rightly reported widely, as it’s in the public interest.

Once that story had left the news cycle though, more and more baseless claims about Greenwood started to pop up in right-wing tabloids. Suddenly he’s supposedly late to training, partying the night before games, being yelled at by Bruno Fernandes in training. These stories are published with no nod to the fact that he’s only recently turned 19. Not only that, a close friend, Jeremy Wisten, who had been released from Manchester City’s academy, committed suicide in October 2020. That is a seismic thing for a 19-year-old to process, and there is no shame in it affecting his performances. Before Christmas 2020, Greenwood had managed just two goals in all competitions. As the season wore on though, his form and overall demeanour picked up. He now looks set to end the season with at least 12 goals.

This sort of treatment of players is something that won’t go away, and a recent Daily Mail article suggested Manchester United youngster Amad Diallo could be subjected to similar practices in the future. United signed Amad Diallo from Atalanta in summer 2020, and he joined up with the squad in January 2021. The 18-year-old has a troubling backstory.

Diallo was smuggled into Italy by a child trafficking ring with his brother and two people posing as his parents. His brother incidentally is Hamed Junior Traore, the Sassuolo midfielder. Amad was just 12 years old at the time. This must still be a very fresh and confusing memory for Diallo to live with, given he’s still only 18. The Italian authorities have been investigating Diallo and his brother, and the case ended with a plea bargain and a £42,000 fine for each.

The fact the brothers are receiving fines rather than the people who trafficked them points to a raft of other societal issues. It’s easier for the authorities to go after these two individuals and appear to be tackling the problem, rather than actually go after the established network of traffickers that are really at fault.

This verdict prompted the Daily Mail to print the following headline: Man United’s £37m Amad Diallo is fined £42,000 for ‘falsifying documents and using bogus parents to push through his move to Italy from the Ivory Coast’. This headline that paints the children as criminal masterminds is extremely distressing. It bears all the hallmarks of the twisted stories that Sterling and Greenwood have been subjected to in the past.

Until Diallo makes a stronger impact on the pitch for United, this story is likely to remain a one-off. It’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination though to envisage further details about his past, true or not, to be dredged up by the tabloids once he becomes a more newsworthy player. These stories and the language used within them are a direct example of the institutional and systemic racism that exists in British society right now. That system creates people who then feel comfortable with, and desensitised to, the vilification of young black footballers.

Football has been at a critical point over the past 12 months in terms of racism within the sport. The Black Lives Matter movement has led to players taking the knee before games and speaking more openly about their experiences, but it’s a gesture that many believe is losing its impact, and which is being targeted by some fans. A section of Chelsea and Leicester supporters recently booed when players took the knee before the FA Cup final. In June 2020, a banner was flown over Burnley’s stadium during a match against Manchester City that read: ‘White Lives Matter Burnley’.

It’s clear that gestures such as taking the knee may feel impactful to those within the sport, but that’s not the only place that the average football fan forms their world view. Racism is a systemic issue, be it in the press or as a result of the rhetoric handed down from the Prime Minister himself.

Euan Burns writes for This is a media platform that helps to raise awareness about migrant injustices and news around the world.

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