The power of diversity in football

Prominent figures from the world of football have emphasised the crucial importance of diversity in the game at a panel discussion at the #EqualGame Conference in London.

Yaya Touré, Roberto Martinez, Rachel Yankey, Bibiana Steinhaus and Jason Roberts appeared as part of the ‘Voices from the pitch’ discussion
Yaya Touré, Roberto Martinez, Rachel Yankey, Bibiana Steinhaus and Jason Roberts appeared as part of the ‘Voices from the pitch’ discussion ©Thomas Lovelock

Leading figures from men’s and women’s football came together to deliver an important message about the power of diversity in football during the #EqualGame Conference in London on Wednesday.

The ‘Voices from the pitch’ panel at Wembley featured Yaya Touré, the ex-FC Barcelona, Manchester City FC and Ivory Coast footballer; Belgium coach Roberto Martínez; Rachel Yankey, the former England women’s footballer and coach of the London Bees; Bibiana Steinhaus, the first woman referee to officiate at games in the German Bundesliga; and Jason Roberts, CONCACAF's director of development.

‘I love the diversity of football’
On the topic of gender, Bibiana Steinhaus spoke impressively about her efforts to prove herself as a female match official in the men’s Bundesliga, saying: “It comes down to leadership, it comes down to decision-making, communication, emotional intelligence, to deal with the players and their issues, and why could a woman not do it in the same way as a man? I really have to say the players and the coaches from my experiences don’t care. You want to have the best possible person in this role, and gender doesn’t matter.

“I love the diversity of football, and one of the strengths in football is we have diversity on the field, and I’d like to have that even more off the field as well,” she added. “When it comes to decision-making, we need to have every aspect of our wonderful sport in the decision-making process.”

Belgium coach Roberto Martínez (centre) makes a point during the debate
Belgium coach Roberto Martínez (centre) makes a point during the debate©Thomas Lovelock

Roberto Martínez spoke about how football teams benefit from diversity – from different cultures and nationalities – as he relayed his experiences overseeing multi-national dressing rooms in the English Premier League and, more recently, with Belgium’s national team. He said: “There’s no doubt diversity is powerful. In Belgium we have an incredibly diverse group, we have three official languages and it works. There is not a question mark – it works because everyone is aware there are different backgrounds, and you need to be respectful towards it.”

Rachel Yankey elaborated on the need for respect across every level of the game – and said football’s elite players had an important role to play in setting an example. “I’ve worked in grassroots football, and some of [the behaviour] is unbelievable,” she said. “At the highest level, you think referees are treated badly? Go and look at grassroots football, it’s terrible. It needs to change at the top, so it helps the bottom.”

Calls for change
There was a powerful testimony from Jason Roberts, as he reflected on his uncle Cyrille Regis’s pioneering role as a black footballer enduring racist abuse in England in the 1970s and 80s – “he had to stand and endure that weekly” – and Roberts went on to question the ongoing problem of a lack of opportunities in management positions for BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) candidates in the English game.

“We really need to look at decision-making and the opportunity for coaches, managers, for those leadership and administration positions,” he said, citing the fact that there were “more than thirty percent BAME players, but four percent in coaching and management roles across our four leagues in England. You are limiting people’s opportunities to continue their careers.”

It was a point reinforced by Yaya Touré, who took heart from his brother Kolo’s first steps in coaching as an assistant to Brendan Rogers at Leicester City FC, but found real cause for concern in recent discrimination incidents in football stadiums. “I didn’t see progress,” he said, before calling for “diversity at the top” and “more and more communication” – including among the team-mates of players who suffer abuse.

A fascinating discussion between leading football figures
A fascinating discussion between leading football figures©Thomas Lovelock

‘We’ll get there’
The discussion ended on a positive note, however, with Roberts citing the articulate way some young English players had responded to abuse recently, and adding: “The players now have their own media channels. They're not waiting to speak to a reporter. I think the media hasn’t done enough and now they are looking at themselves. I think football is looking at itself. 

“We’re all looking at ourselves. What can we do? Everybody in this room can ask, are they being inclusive? That’s what we can do today, and outside of that, what policies can we put in place to ensure we are giving a chance to everybody, regardless of their gender, disabilities, race, colour, creed? That’s something that can be done today, and so I sit here enthusiastic about the future. There’s a lot of work to be done but we’ll get there.”