Danish goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard in action for Manchester City in January 2012. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

A prayer for the goalies and referees of the World Cup

Let’s take a minute to remember the perennial villains of the game.

Here is one thing I can predict with total certainty about this World Cup: an as-yet-to-be determined number of goalies and referees are going to suffer terrible fates. They will be vilified. They will ruin their lives as we watch. They will shoulder the rage and sorrows of entire nations.

As we saunter into this month-long spectacle, let us take a moment to thank them. For their suffering is what makes this theatre possible.

I was the goalie for my suburban American youth team, and I actually remember a kind of beautiful peace to the role. You watch, from a quiet distance, as the pattern of the game unfolds, at ease when the ball is far off, gradually more and more alert as it approaches. There’s a kind of curious apartness to being a goalie. Except, of course, when your defenders once again screw up, and the ball comes streaking towards you, and in a gesture of complete irrationality and abandon you throw yourself in its path. And then, often enough, after all that, as your face smashes into the dirt, the ball goes into the net anyway. And it’s all your fault.

I was spared this experience much of the time only because an Icelandic wunderkind named Yakko had miraculously descended into the precincts of Bethesda, and even more miraculously ended up on our second-rate team. My job mostly consisted in watching him leave a trail consisting of every opposing player lying on the ground, then scoring one goal after another, then running back to us, all smiles, and high-fiving me as if I had contributed somehow by standing inert in the goal in the meantime.

I do remember well, though, the brief period when my Bolivian coach (who, he always repeated to us, had once “played with Pelé”, allowing us to imagine this taking place in some grand circumstance) decided I should be a striker. Apparently I’d dribbled better than anyone (save Yakko) during a drill. Plus I was Belgian, which I think he hoped would have conferred on me some skill in the midst of the desert of talent he found himself in. My career as a striker was relatively short, but I do remember well the incredible freedom I felt, the lightness of trying to score rather than stopping others from scoring. It was sometimes my fault we didn’t win. But it was never precisely my fault that we lost, the way it was when I was a goalie.

The lot of the goalie has generated its share of art, literature and philosophy. Albert Camus was a goalie, and I feel pretty comfortable attributing the entire structure of existentialist thought to that fact. And of course we have constantly been hearing of late about Moacir Barbosa, whose mistake in the final of the 1950 World Cup cost Brazil its trophy, completely ruining his life for good in the process, since Brazilians blamed forever for the worst thing that ever happened in history. If you are ever feeling sorry for yourself just imagine trying to go out to dinner in Rio as Moacir Barbosa.

If you are lucky as a goalie for a losing side, people will forget you. Who was the English goalie against whom Maradona scored his two legendary goals in 1986? Most of us don’t know his name, because no one really blames him for letting those two goals in. They either blame or celebrate Maradona, who occupies enough space in people’s memories anyway.

Often, though, goalies play extraordinary games but then are remembered for one failure. Think of Raïs M’Bohli, the amazing goalie for Algeria in the 2010 World Cup who stopped strike after strike from the U.S., basically keeping his team in the game. Except we don’t remember that so much as the fact that in its final minutes, Landon Donovan scored probably the most exciting goal in our country’s history against him.

Goalies do have some things going for them. In the right circumstances, they can be heroes. I suspect that for many goalies there is a certain pleasure in penalty shoot-outs for precisely this reason. The tables are turned, and for once it is those who are trying to score who bear all the responsibility. During penalty kicks, every player becomes a goalie. They get the chance to lose everything for their team. Roberto Baggio is condemned to be forever sending his shot far over the cross bar and into the stands in the 1994 final against Brazil, losing the Cup for Italy in that one instant.

As bad as goalies have it, referees have it even worse. The very best they can hope for is relative invisibility. If they referee a perfect match, people will forget they were even there. As for glory or praise, they can pretty much give up on that. When’s the last time you sat around with friends and waxed poetic about the brilliant refereeing of Howard Webb? Will there ever be a video game called FIFA referee?

Much more likely for a referee is that they will at some point be accused of being absolutely the worst person on the planet. Remember Koman Coulibaly, who at the 2010 World Cup disallowed a goal scored by the U.S. that was clearly over the line? Suddenly all kinds of people who never had seemed to care about soccer much before were enraged that this African referee – who, some noted, didn’t even speak English! – had stolen a goal from United States. As Paul Kennedy put it wryly, Coulibaly had actually done us a big favor: “He accomplished what no one else could in more than 100 years. He made Americans care passionately about soccer.”

I love yelling at referees as much as anyone else. I’m rip-roaring mad about the refereeing of the 1982 semifinal between France and Germany, which happened when I was ten and which I have only ever seen on YouTube.

But even though I realise this is a completely quixotic hope, one that goes against the very core of the being of most football fans, I’m still going to make this modest proposal for this World Cup. When the moment comes when we want to blame everything on a goalie or a referee, let us stop for a moment and imagine ourselves in his cleats. If we do that, maybe in a small way this World Cup will actually make a contribution to humanity.

This article first appeared on

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.