Prejudice may be costing England World Cups. Why do I say this? Well, we haven’t won it since 1966, and we’ve come pretty close twice, in 1986 and 1990. We’ve barely had a sniff since then. In major international tournaments, these games often come down to to the smallest margins, with the last two World Cups having been at the very end of extra time. We hear so often that every small factor can make the difference – fitness, conditioning, whether the players are happy within the camp. But what about prejudice?
The Germany team who won in Brazil had players drawn from all over the country, and from diverse communities. They had players from the poorer East, and players of Turkish, Albanian and Ghanaian descent. They had an environment where gay players could feel protected, with their coach Joachim Low stating in January 2014 that Thomas Hitzlsperger, who came out after he retired, was someone who “should be treated with respect from all sides”. Inclusivity isn’t just some wishy-washy concept dreamed up by navel-gazing liberals. It’s good for your football team. There was a time, after all, when even Brazil barred black players from its leagues, which is something when you consider this is the country that would later produce Pele and Garrincha. It is entirely logical that you stand the greatest chance of success if you draw your talent from the widest possible pool. And that talent has to be happy to work for you, to perform for you.
This is why anyone hoping for England to achieve their true potential at international tournaments should be concerned by the FA’s inaction over Malky Mackay. Mackay has been given a new job at Wigan Athletic only months after the revelation of a series of racist, sexist and homophobic text messages that he sent to his friend and to members of Cardiff staff. These text messages, based upon subsequent tweets from former players of his, were indicative of a wider atmosphere where those from ethnic minorities often felt less than welcome. The FA has so far failed to fine or even reprimand Mackay for his actions.
“Why should Wigan wait?” his defenders may ask. “Hasn’t Mackay already suffered enough in the court of public opinion?” Yet if they pose such questions, then they are probably not thinking about all those talented people who are dissuaded from working with people like Mackay because of his views and corresponding behaviour. They are not thinking of the damage being done to the English game as a result. They are not thinking of those people, who count black people, gay people and women among their dearest relatives, who would do anything rather than work in an environment allegedly as toxic as that which Mackay ultimately created at Cardiff.
All of that talent is being silently lost, week after month after year. For all we know, so much may have been lost already, long before those people got to work with managers as enlightened as Sir Bobby Robson. There are the anecdotal stories, and so many of us know a handful of them: the stories about those companies you wouldn’t play for or those clubs you wouldn’t join because of their attitudes to black people, to gay people, to Jews, to Asians, to women. They’re the stories that come out over dinner tables with your trusted and loved ones. The City law firm you avoided because the anti-Semitism from one of the senior partners was off the scale. The professional football team your mate halted trials with because of what they said about gay people. The commercial banker who went off on a light-hearted rant about bloody shirtlifters just after you signed that deal.
Imagine what England’s footballing infrastructure is losing every single time the FA is faced with an event like the Mackay scandal and it fails swiftly and firmly to rule that this is not remotely acceptable within the fabric of the game. Just think about the opportunities that are being wasted. Look how little time it has taken for previously unheralded managers to sweep into the Premier League and deliver outstanding results. And now imagine the young untested coaches from ethnic minority backgrounds who are looking for someone to take just one chance on them. They are out there just as surely as Brendan Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino were once out there. Of course they are. This is England we’re talking about, one of the most diverse countries in the world. Imagine the brilliant specialists and the coaches and the players who are thinking, “you know what, I love the game, I just don’t fancy working with such a lack of support. Life is too short to try to change these institutions from the inside”. And some might say that if they were tough enough they’d put up with prejudice like this, and if so they’d be missing the point. Professional footballers and football managers are plenty tough enough. Many of them have dealt with the possibility of rejection their entire careers. They’re not looking for handouts or special status, just the opportunity to be respected and judged on the same basis as everyone else.
And now Malky Mackay is walking unhindered into a job at Wigan, where he will determine the fates of many more footballers and the destination of many more millions of pounds. And we see the foundations of English football weaken a little more, as we see other countries and professions scooping up the talent that our game with its apathy towards prejudice consistently casts aside. And, finally, we can look at Germany with a degree of envy, and wonder why we too can’t just get it together.