Could Leicester City's sporting success help kick racism into touch?

Posted by ap507 at May 13, 2016 10:03 AM |
University of Leicester sociologist John Williams says Premier League glory may help diverse communities to better connect in Britain’s most multicultural city

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 13 May 2016

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Leicester City Football Club’s phenomenal success becoming English Premier League Champions in one of Britain’s most diverse cities  has ‘touched the lives’ of people from all walks of life – and could have a positive impact on tackling racism.

Renowned sports sociologist John Williams, from the University of Leicester, said: “Racism does exist in football and sometimes it is strategic - for example opposing fans use racism to try to gain an advantage by putting players off their game or abuse rival supporters. But there is also racism that is deep-seated and rooted in those old types of stereotypes of racial difference.

“I think the problem as a public focus has reduced in England partly because of the way the game has globalized. Even though we do not see large numbers of Asian and black people in the stands as fans, we see black players on the pitch.  Leicester City has a global squad and that has had a generally positive impact on racism. The fact that clubs now have players from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds has made people rethink the issue of racism.

“People think “Well our own club has players from different ethnic backgrounds” – so they think racism doesn’t fit here anymore.  That is a major positive.

“Certainly the celebrations in Leicester for winning the Premier League involve more sections of the community and I am hopeful that this success will attract a much more diverse make-up of the crowd at Leicester City in the years to come.

“Winning has touched different communities in the city and many new communities have gotten very excited about Leicester’s success.  It doesn’t mean they will attend as live spectators because it is quite expensive and it is not always easy to get hold of tickets. But I think that via interest in the football club is one important way that their own identities will connect to the city, and so they are part of the wider group of people who are taking an interest in the club and they are very proud to be living in a city that is hosting the Premier League champions.  It is good for people who have just arrived and may feel the city is a bit new and a bit strange to them.” 

Mr Williams said the city of Leicester’s recent history as a welcoming home for many South Asian people and other migrants has done much to promote positive diversity.

He added: “Now, most South Asian youngsters here grow up playing football – but watching the giants duel it out on television. Leicester remained in the shadow of much bigger domestic and European competitors. So we saw Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man United and of course Barcelona shirts on kids of all backgrounds round our way more than we did Leicester City ones. Barring a brief spell of success under Martin O’Neill between 1995 and 2000, the Foxes did little to challenge the idea that Leicester was a second class football citizen. Until now that is.”

Mr Williams said surveys of the crowds at the two major professional sports clubs in Leicester, City and Tigers, that he had carried out in the past had shown Leicester City had a younger, less wealthy, more city-based supporter base while Tigers fans were older, more likely to be drawn from the county and from some more affluent south Leicester suburbs.

Leicester City then had around 7 per cent of their home crowd drawn from BME backgrounds – it is more today -  whereas the Tigers struggled to make it even close to 1 per cent. Impressionistically, City has probably increased its BME fan-base since, but Tigers still struggle. British Asians seem not to be natural rugby union fans.

“But what is also striking is how few sporty Leicester-born Asian youngsters actually claim to be supporters of Leicester City. Any city classroom will tell you pretty much the same story: mainly-white schools tend to produce decent numbers of City fans, but young local Asian kids have typically opted for other, larger clubs they have seen on TV.

“The reasons for this are not too difficult to work out. Older, local Asians have not usually been active City fans, initially because of a lack of a local connection or club welcome, and fears about racism. Times have changed, but they have not passed on active local football support to their kids. Also, their sporting interests may have been divided – including on cricket, perhaps.

“Many Leicester-born Asian youngsters today have quite complex sporting allegiances. After their parents, they still follow India or Pakistan in international cricket, but England in football.

“This has meant that most Asian youngsters born in Leicester have made their own football club connections via TV coverage of the glossy Premier League. They often identify with distant corporate winners – Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool – rather than, through ties of place and family, locally with Leicester City.

“But what is happening this season offers potential future intrigue: because Leicester City are beginning to look a lot like potential long term winners. Which could mean more South Asian youngsters combining a craving for success with a new demand to attend safely at their local, Europe-bound football club.”

John Williams is Senior Lecturer in the University of Leicester Department of Sociology. His research interests include the Sociology of football and football fan culture; sports identities; football spectator behaviour and policing football crowds; women and football; issues of antiracist action around football clubs; local football and local identity construction through sport; the local governance of sport; rugby union fan and football fan allegiances and identity construction through sport; the new global and commercial landscape of professional football in Europe. He is interested in questions concerning globalisation, national and sub-national sporting identities, and 'race' and racism in sport.

Until recently he Chaired the Foxes Against Racism group at Leicester City and he now sits on the Race Equality Advisory Group for football in Leicestershire.


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