The campaign for greater equality, inclusion and diversity in football has been the focal point of the keynote #EqualGame Conference in London, organised jointly by UEFA, the English Football Association and the Fare network.
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UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin called on the football family across Europe to continue the drive for greater equality, diversity and inclusion as he addressed the #EqualGame Conference at Wembley Stadium.
Organised jointly by UEFA, the English Football Association and the Fare network, the two-day conference on Tuesday and Wednesday brought together delegates from over 50 countries.
Opening the conference, Mr Čeferin said he was “ashamed” by the problems which continue to blemish football. “I am simply ashamed that today in 2019, we have to organise a conference that promotes diversity. It is 2019, how can that happen? Because of that, I am ashamed. I am ashamed that here in Europe, not a weekend goes by without a discriminatory act taking place in a football stadium, at amateur level or professional level.”
He added: “I am ashamed to see lone individuals utter racist, sexist and homophobic insults without realising the devastating effect and symbolic significance of their words.
“I am ashamed to see that players, coaches, and officials do not reveal their sexual orientation in public as they fear the reaction of our football community. This shows a deep-seated problem still exists.”
The UEFA President applauded the efforts of those “advocating change and calling for greater equality and justice”, and underlined the power of football as a “social catalyst”, saying: “Football is a sport that wipes out all differences, social, racial, sexual and religious, the only colours that matter on the pitch are the colours of the players’ shirts.”
However, he stressed: “We need to keep doing more – more for other people, more for solidarity, more for diversity, because we must dare to change, we must dare to be different, dare to invest hugely in educating our children.”
Greg Clarke, chairman of the English FA, highlighted the need to take a fresh look at the controls in place to combat racism in football. “We must do more in England, including here at the English FA, and we must do more across Europe and we must do this together,” he said.
Detailing The FA’s measures to counter incidents of racism, which include the training of stewards, he said: “There is an undue burden on the player to report incidents themselves”, adding that “we should go that extra mile. We owe it to our players.”
Clarke offered an insight into other steps taken by The FA, including a push for greater diversity in the association’s workforce, and the introduction of an equivalent to American football’s Rooney Rule for applications for coaching jobs.
The opening day on Tuesday included panel discussions on diversity (‘The future of football is diverse’), and women and leadership. Speaking in the latter discussion, Anne Rei, general secretary of the Estonian Football Association, said: “We have to change the mindset – women are the same people as men. We’re a little bit different, of course, but we’re both well-educated, and we both can do the job very well, and you have to believe in this as a leader. I really hope in 10-15 years when we are speaking about leadership, we don’t speak about ‘women in leadership’ and ‘men in leadership’.”
On football and disability, Jack Rutter, meanwhile, the former captain of the England Cerebral Palsy team, spoke movingly about the impact of the game on his life after an assault ended his hopes of becoming a professional footballer. He asked: “Roughly 18 percent of the population of Europe have a disability, but do they have the chance to play?”
Day two on Wednesday began with words from Andrej Pišl, president of Out in Slovenia, an organisation that stands up for LGBT+ rights in the Slovenian sports world. He stressed the importance of grassroots activities involving the LGBT+ community: “Even very small events can have an impact. My message to you would be to support or do local events, reach out to grassroots sport, pay attention to education, and keep an open mind.”
Another impressive speaker was Bjørn Ihler, a survivor of the 2011 Norway terror attacks and international counter-extremism expert, who said: “The cure for violent extremism is to figure out a way to build communities in which we celebrate diversity and see each other as different, and learn from that and grow from that.”
The conference ended with a positive message from Peter Odemwingie. The ex-Nigeria forward had spoken the previous day, during the discussion panel on diversity, about the change he had witnessed over the years in Russia, where he grew up and played. Announcing his retirement as a footballer, he said: “We will definitely win. I’ve said it many times – the change has already come, this is the last part.”