Sport Matters: Too black to coach?

Sport Matters asks, when it comes to top football coaches, why are they still nearly all white?

Played by millions, watched by billions, even at its most partisan football has the power to unite the world. But while race is no barrier to success as a player, becoming a top coach, it seems, is a lot less likely if you’re black.

Of the 16 head coaches leading their teams in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, only three are black. With African national teams still seeking white European coaches above black Africans, and with so few black professional footballers making the transition to become coaches at any level, Sport Matters asks, when it comes to football coaching, are some people just too black to coach? 

In the UK we meet with former Dutch international and new Burton Albion manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. When appointed in November 2014, Hasselbaink became only the third black manager in professional English football – a remarkable anomaly in a country where 25 percent of the professional footballers are black. We hear from Brendon Batson, a pioneering black footballer in England in the 1970s who now works with the English Football Association to change the coaching structures from being so overwhelmingly white. 

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's November 2014 appointment as a Burton Albion manager made him the third black manager in professional English football. [Al Jazeera]
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s November 2014 appointment as a Burton Albion manager made him the third black manager in professional English football. [Al Jazeera]

In Ghana, the officials, they believe in the white coaches more than the blacks.

by -Osei Kofi whose goals helped Ghana win The Africa Cup of Nations in 1965

We travel to Ghana where former international players and head coaches give us their brutally honest opinions as to why, on the eve of the Africa Cup of Nations, the Ghana FA appointed Avram Grant, a white Israeli, as manager of the Black Stars. We’re given exclusive access to the Ghanaian squad and in a special interview with the Ghana FA President Nyantakyi Kwesi, we explore the possible effects of a colonial hangover with white coaches seemingly afforded greater cache and kudos. We ask him why on a short-list of five candidates for the head coach’s job, there was not a single black candidate.

With the paucity of black coaches a reality across the world, we go to FIFA head quarters in Zurich, Switzerland, to ask the Vice President of the game’s global governing body Jeffrey Webb, why so little has been done to challenge one of the game’s great imbalances. 

In our studios in the iconic Shard building in London, we’re joined for a panel discussion by Piara Powar of the Football Against Racism in Europe network, Heather Rabbatts, a director of the English FA, and former England captain Sol Campbell. They offer their unique perspectives on the subject of black coaches with Campbell revealing just how difficult it is for a black player to move from playing to coaching. 

And in an exclusive interview, his first since becoming UEFA’s Global Ambassador for Diversity and Change, former AC Milan head coach, footballing superstar and the only player to have won four Champions Leagues with three different clubs, Clarence Seedorf sheds new light on the topic of race and sport through his professional and personal experience.

Through a compelling blend of documentary and discussion, Sport Matters unravels the myths and stereotypes of a much discussed and much misunderstood subject, whilst uncovering the real stories of those most affected. 

Panelist Piara Powar, Heather Rabatts, and Sol Campbell discuss the paucity of black coaches in professional football with host Lee Wellings. [Al Jazeera]
Panelist Piara Powar, Heather Rabatts, and Sol Campbell discuss the paucity of black coaches in professional football with host Lee Wellings. [Al Jazeera]
Filmmaker’s view

A White Man’s World: the curse of the black football manager

By Sanjiev Johal

“Only thing they ever did wrong was being born black in a white man’s world.” –Tupac Shakur

If you’re a white man, chances are life will favour you more than someone who’s not white and not male. In Britain, black men are more likely to be unemployed, more likely to be in prison, less likely to be in a professional job and less likely to receive a university offer. Half a century on from the first UK Race Relations Act, being black is still going to hold you back. Football is no exception to that rule.

It might seem odd to suggest that football has a problem with race. A quarter of all footballers in England are black. But when it comes to managers, the numbers are pitiful – only five black men are managers across 92 professional football clubs. At the beginning of this season, there were none.

Those figures raise eyebrows, but why should they? Should we be surprised that black players are still, primarily, calibrated by physical dexterity, lauded for skill, power, athleticism while ‘intelligence’ or tactical prowess comes as a surprise bonus? Such lazy platitudes have assumed their own irrepressible legitimacy.

And so it is that aspiring black managers such as ex-Chelsea striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, seek to overturn prejudices as old and as defunct as skull measuring.

Hasselbaink has taken charge of Burton Albion FC in the lowest tier of professional English football. He’s starting near the bottom in the hope of working his way up. Few black players have managed that path to success. Few have even tried. Hasselbaink, however, is convinced of his abilities: “I didn’t go and do my qualifications thinking I might not get a job because I’m black. I got this job because I’m the right person to take it forward and that’s it.”

Being black is irrelevant for Hasselbaink. He has been hired and is judged on the merit of his work alone. In some ways it is an admirable resolve, colour blindness as defence mechanism. But he is now couched as one of the five “black managers” in the English game. No one speaks of the other 87 as “white managers.”

Back in 1998 I co-authored a book chronicling the British Asian love affair with football. Corner Shops and Corner Flags was published at a time when there was not a single player of South Asian heritage in the upper echelons of football in Britain. “It’s just a matter of time” was the old saw dished out like some panacean balm. Seventeen years on, time has changed nothing. There is still no South Asian footballer blazing a trail in football’s upper reaches. So when I hear “it’s just a matter of time” trotted out to soothe the concerns of those decrying the lack of black managers, I’m not soothed, I’m not salved or placated or convinced.

Stereotypes of South Asians as less physical, more academically inclined and endowed still abound. Despite the likes of World Champion boxer Amir Khan and test cricketers such as Ravi Bhopara and Monty Panesar proving elite sporting prowess, three generations of South Asians in this country have failed to make a mark in football.

The tired clichés of diet, lack of parental support and physical weakness have not quite been washed out of football’s dirty laundry. Not yet. Evidence of their persistence is found in a corollary – the hackneyed banalities, conscious or otherwise, that usher young black people into sports ahead of other professions, that equate black with physical before intellectual, that when it comes to football, regard a black man as good enough to play but not good enough to coach.

Of the 16 teams competing in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, only three have black African head coaches. African players star in football leagues the world over, but their own associations are unwilling to put a black man in charge of their national teams. The white man remains, it seems, vaunted for his discipline, organisation, professionalism as well as some mutated notion of integrity – even by those alive to the legacy of colonial yoke. From white foreign contractors running infrastructure projects across the continent, to the likes of Avram Grant leading the Black Stars of Ghana in the Africa Cup of Nations, it’s difficult to escape the pangs of a lingering, self-effecting, post-colonial hangover that continues to deny equivalence.

Football is just a game, played across the planet by all peoples. That some of those people become managers and coaches more easily and in greater numbers than others, merely reflects the prejudices, injustices and inequalities of the greater global order. But as the likes of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink cut their teeth in football management, maybe things will change. Maybe time may heal, even ameliorate. Let’s hope so, in Tupac’s words, let’s hope they make it to better times, in this white man’s world.

Sport Matters: Too Black to Coach? was broadcast on Al Jazeera English on January 30, 2015