So, it turns out that the Football Association is institutionally racist.
That is, according to Sol Campbell, who claims in his explosive new book that the colour of his skin has denied him the opportunity to captain England for more than a decade. He believes the issue had nothing to do with his performance, nor the existence of better candidates, but because he was ‘black.’
This is a potentially damaging allegation. As far as we know, Campbell never endured poor treatment, and was held in high enough regard to win 73 caps for England, leading the side on three occasions. Yet, in his mind, the fact that he was consistently overlooked for the role of permanent captain went well beyond footballing reasons.
However, Campbell’s bitter disappointment does not appear to have shaken his self-confidence. He justifies his credentials by reminding us he “had the credibility, performance-wise, to be captain.” He claims have “consistently [been] at the heart of the defence and…was a club captain early on in [his] career”. This is an accurate, if slightly arrogant, assessment. From a young age, he captained Tottenham Hotspur, one of the biggest clubs in the country, and was a mainstay at the heart of England’s defence for over ten years.
Being a regular starting spot and the armband at club level do not, however, guarantee an official leadership role in international football. Steven Gerrard is an example of this; despite captaining Liverpool with distinction for a long period, he only assumed the role of England captain after John Terry was removed for the second time in February 2012.
At his peak, Campbell was an accomplished defender. He was a figure of leadership in all the teams he represented, yet also had the mixed blessing of belonging to the ‘Golden Generation’. Surrounded by talented players, Campbell was never given the captaincy permanently because Tony Adams, Alan Shearer and David Beckham were allegedly deemed better qualified for the role. The strong likelihood is that, in the eyes of the FA, their advantage over Campbell was to do with their leadership capability, rather than skin colour.
Campbell’s specific grievances were at times when, in Beckham’s absence, Michael Owen was chosen to lead the team instead. It was then that he became convinced that “the FA didn’t want [him] to have a voice.” This retrospective criticism of decisions made more than ten years ago is disrespectful to Owen, whose standing in the game was high at that time.
Moreover, Campbell’s understanding of the selection of the England captain does not conform to that of the public’s. Recent controversy surrounding John Terry, which led to Fabio Capello’s resignation, shows that the FA only intervenes on the issue when they deem it absolutely necessary. Just as the manager is given free rein over selection, he is also entitled to choose whichever candidate he feels best suits the role as his leader within the dressing room. Essentially, Campbell is accusing managers he has worked under of being influenced by the desire for a ‘white’ captain.
It is hard to believe that successive England managers were blinded by race. Former FA chairman, Lord Triesman, painted a more realistic picture with analysis, commenting, “I don’t subscribe to the view that it [the FA] was consciously racist but I think there is an assumption of a type of person who should captain England.” This is a very difficult argument to disprove, because it is impossible to know whether managers who picked England captains did so with a subconscious desire to choose a ‘white’ player. If ‘black’ players are at a disadvantage when being considered for the England captaincy, it is far more likely to be for this reason, as opposed to a deliberate policy of prejudice.
Campbell’s argument seems even more confused, when it is considered that ‘black’ players have previously captained England. Paul Ince regularly wore the armband during the 1990s, a time where Campbell himself was on the team, and Rio Ferdinand’s ill-fated period as skipper came just two-and-a-half years after Campbell’s final appearance.
That being said, Campbell is neither stupid nor seeking publicity; his grievance is clearly genuine. Because of football’s unfortunate history with regards to racism, it is only right that any accusation of discrimination be taken with the utmost seriousness. This story will strike a note with those who subscribe to the view that the FA is failing in its responsibility to combat racism, particularly after handing out pathetic punishment to Nicolas Anelka, Luis Suarez and John Terry for disgraceful conduct on the field.
Furthermore, it does not seem entirely appropriate for a predominantly white press to criticise Campbell for the manner in which he has chosen to reveal his frustration with perceived institutional failings within the FA. It sits uncomfortably that a group of ‘white people’ have dismissed Campbell’s protests, condemning him for playing the race card, naively assuming that football is immune from the societal plague of racism. Focusing on the sensationalist element of his comments disguises the real issue, which is not the entrance of such a story into the public domain, but how the FA could do more to strive for greater equality within the game.
I think Campbell deserves a fair hearing. His eleven years of service to the England team means that he is entitled to a private explanation if he feels slighted. However, I also believe that while the FA has let itself down badly on other race issues, it is extremely unlikely they are at fault here. Campbell was not so much the victim of institutional racism, but the member of a team with more qualified candidates for the captaincy.