Bobby Gardiner - 'Refugees Welcome, the debate that never was'
Bobby Gardiner is one of the Fans for Diversity campaign journalists.
Alongside Isra Gabal, Bobby will be commenting on ‘Fans for Diversity’ events as well as offering his own unique opinion on equality and diversity topics in football.
In his second piece, Bobby reflects on English football’s reaction to the refugee crisis.
By the time Alan Kurdi washed up on the guilt laden sands of Kos, British football had already begun its initial rallies of refugee support. Weeks before our media was possessed by an ultimately fickle grip of empathy, Kingstonian fans had been one of the first in Europe to raise a ‘Refugees Welcome’ banner, while FC United and Clapton had pioneered similarly early support.
But where it might be expected that the galvanizing thunderbolt that was the mass circulation of that picture would inspire support for a pro-refugee movement throughout the country’s game, this was hardly the case. Where a roar of support rose in other parts of Europe, particularly Germany, British football threw back a timid shrug.
This shrug was one shared from top to bottom; a group of Arsenal fans made a supportive banner of their own, only for it to now be allowed into the stadium for “security reasons”, while other Premier League clubs – attempting to remain apolitical – were notably silent. Supporter group voices were dampened, but where in political debate that may be because of disagreement or conflicting consensus, here it was another reminder that a Premier League club’s primary purpose is its own vested interests.
As well as pledging money to charitable causes and hosting refugee days, German football moved quickly to spread guidelines on the assimilation of refugees into football clubs. Fourth division side Kickers Offenbach set up development camps to improve the chances of refugees being picked up by clubs. Although not a part of the recent influx of Syrians, Borussia Mönchengladbach’s midfielder Mahmoud Dahoud is a burgeoning beacon of hope.
The dramatic contrast with Germany, at least in part, is a consequence of differing ownership models. A ‘50+1’ system positions fans at the epicentre of a club rather than its periphery, and in its decision making process rather than a callous afterthought. As a BBC article comparing the two systems asserts: “if you ask fans outside a Bayern game who owns the club, they are incredulous: “The members, of course”, they say.”
The closest our game comes to anything like the German system is non-league, and it is here that the majority of public outpours of support took place. As the upper echelons of British football’s were intent to be that one person who gets away with saying nothing in a seminar became increasingly transparent, the exceptions were to be found at clubs like Clapton, who offered free entry to the refugee community.
At its ‘Non League Day’ in October, Kick It Out worked with the anti-racism project ‘Football Unites, Racism Divides’ and the world’s first football club, Sheffield FC, inviting refugees to take part in the day’s events. It’s not that the desire to express and incite support doesn’t exist at micro level, it’s more that football’s biggest clubs and league have turned a blind eye to it.
A blind eye met by another, and another, in a nation’s bizarre decision to reject the debate that it chose to harbour the day that horrific image covered its newspapers.