Sol Campbell on the pitch. Photo: Getty
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Did Sol Campbell really miss out on the England captaincy because he was black?

Like Kanye West, Sol Campbell has the habit of making headline-hogging statements that allow us to evade wider and more uncomfortable questions – in this case, about institutional racism in football.

If Kanye West had played professional football, then he might have provided quotes like Sol Campbell. Campbell, who had a distinguished career for various clubs (most notably, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur) and his country, has contended that “if I was white, I would have been England captain for more than 10 years”. Campbell’s comments, which appear as extracts from his new biography in The Sunday Times, are damning of the Football Association, whom he describes as “institutionally racist”. He elaborates thus: “I think the FA wished I was white. I had the credibility, performance-wise, to be captain . . . I’ve asked myself many times why I wasn’t [captain]. I keep coming up with the same answer. It was the colour of my skin.”

Like Kanye West, Sol Campbell has the habit of making headline-hogging statements that allow us to evade wider and more uncomfortable questions. When Kanye, in an interview with BBC Radio One’s Zane Lowe, railed against racism in the fashion industry, his important point was lost in the familiar Kanye haze of outlandish egotism. Similarly, when Campbell remarked that racism has been and is a problem within football, he stated his case in a manner that has unfortunately made the entire issue far simpler to dismiss.

The thing about making accusations of racism, particularly those against organisations, is that it is very difficult to prove them at the best of times. Unfortunately for Campbell, who was wryly aware of the furore his remarks would attract, the facts as they stand are not strongly in his favour. He played for England for just over ten years, between 1996 and 2007, receiving 73 caps in that time; during that period, he played alongside David Beckham, Alan Shearer, Tony Adams, John Terry and Steven Gerrard, each of whom could at various times have considered themselves worthy of the captaincy. Campbell himself led England three times, more than Wayne Rooney or Frank Lampard, who have been handed the captain's armband twice each. Like Kanye, who imagines himself to be a visionary in the world of fashion, it may be that Campbell overestimates his ability as a leader in his chosen field.

But, but, but. There does still seem to be a persistent problem regarding racism within football; and that is evident from the cacophonous silence from many of Britain’s black footballers at vital moments. Let’s not forget that they felt so dismayed by their union’s handling of the issue that, as recently as October 2012, they were considering the launch of a breakaway organisation to represent their interests. It is unclear whether these preliminary discussions evolved into anything much more substantial but it is instructive that black footballers even thought them necessary. More interesting still is the secrecy in which they were conducted, as if they feared public reprisal if they voiced their grievances too openly. After all, this was 2012; a time when we should presumably be past such conversations, clandestine or otherwise. We have had black England captains; black English footballers are some of our most-loved characters and several of them may prove decisive in this season’s Premier League title race. What’s there to complain about?

Well, quite a lot, if we step back from the spectacle. As was pointed out to me on social media yesterday, it was only a handful of years before Campbell’s arrival as an international player that racism was alleged to be a factor in selection of the England team. As noted by Vivek Chaudhary in “Manager reveals England’s hidden racism”, an article that he wrote for the Guardian in 2004,

Wednesday’s lunch to mark the 10th anniversary of the football anti-racism group Kick It Out was buzzing with speculation about the identity of a former England manager who has alleged that during his tenure he was told by senior FA officials not to pick too many black players. The manager in question, whose identity is known to Digger and has a long history of closely working with some of England’s leading black players over the past 25 years, privately spoke about the incident at the lunch but refused to go public with his allegation. He claims that he was called into an office where two senior FA officials were present and they told him that his England team should be made up of predominantly white footballers. [My italics.]

It’s only a thought, but it’s worth wondering whether the only people who speak out are those who feel that they have nothing left to lose. Football is a very small world and those who consistently speak out of turn will find themselves swiftly excluded. It’s notable that this former England manager still did not feel comfortable, years after leaving his role, to say attach his name publicly to these allegations. Campbell’s claim that the FA is “institutionally racist” is not currently backed by the most compelling of evidence. However, it is a comment that has come at a particularly damaging time, following the FA’s award to Nicolas Anelka of a mere five-match ban for making the quenelle gesture. To quote the definition given in the Macpherson Report in 1999, institutional racism is:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people. [My italics.]

This is where allegations of institutional racism against the FA, and the sport of football in general, may gather some momentum. Many people may think that racism is merely the preserve of hooded men on horseback, but it’s not: it’s also something far more insidious, which is the failure to see people as suitable for positions of authority merely because of the colour of their skin. In some cases, it is a prejudice of which even those making such appointments may be unaware; but, of course, that does not make it any less detrimental to the ethnic-minority candidate in question. On this note, it was just last autumn that the FA faced implications of not only institutional racism but institutional sexism, having appointed a commission to consider the future of English football that consisted entirely of white men. As Heather Rabbatts, the FA’s first female director, objected in a letter to the commission’s chairman Greg Dyke:

By proceeding along this current path we are not only failing to reflect our national game but we are also letting down so many Black and Ethnic Minority people – players, ex-players, coaches and volunteers, who have so much to offer and are so often discouraged and disheartened by the attitudes they encounter. The FA should be leading by example not reinforcing entrenched attitudes. [My italics.]

Rabbatts’ letter, which is worth reading in full, is clearly something that she published as a last resort; which suggests that, for every Sol Campbell vaulting above the barricades in sensationalist fashion, there are very many more black people, very possibly with far more nuanced arguments than him, who are silent for fear of rocking the boat. However, looking at their under-representation in the game’s senior positions, it may well be that the boat could do with some rough seas. It is to be hoped that, lest Campbell be seen as a lone and poorly-substantiated voice of protest, they come forward to tell their stories.

Photo: Getty
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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for International Trade.

Only Nixon, it is said, could have gone to China. Only a politician with the impeccable Commie-bashing credentials of the 37th President had the political capital necessary to strike a deal with the People’s Republic of China.

Theresa May’s great hope is that only Liam Fox, the newly-installed Secretary of State for International Trade, has the Euro-bashing credentials to break the news to the Brexiteers that a deal between a post-Leave United Kingdom and China might be somewhat harder to negotiate than Vote Leave suggested.

The biggest item on the agenda: striking a deal that allows Britain to stay in the single market. Elsewhere, Fox should use his political capital with the Conservative right to wait longer to sign deals than a Remainer would have to, to avoid the United Kingdom being caught in a series of bad deals. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.