English football urged to tackle Islamophobia as Muslims reveal widespread abuse
Amateur players are targets of anti-Muslim taunts from spectators, opponents and even teammates
English football is under pressure to tackle Islamophobia, after a report revealed the level of abuse directed towards Muslim players in the grassroots game.
Research examined the stories of 40 men and women, aged 19 to 45, who faced anti-Muslim discrimination while playing Sunday league football.
It found players from Muslim backgrounds faced abuse from opposition players, supporters and even their own teammates, because of their religion.
The report said they were “suffering in silence” because of discrimination, which is hampering their progress in the game.
“[Muslim footballers] are waiting for an opportunity and if the opportunity comes, they are not confident enough to go forward with their ambitions”, one participant told researchers.
Hostility towards Muslim players is common, with some football fans shouting Islamophobic and racist slurs at players.
“The fans are the worst, they will directly make you feel unwelcome and use verbal racist abuse. We’ve had fans of the other team shouting ‘burn the Quran’,” one participant said.
They were also called "Talibans" and bombers and were sworn at.
Players who wore headscarves said they were abused while playing and online, including one woman who said she was called a terrorist and “Bin Laden’s daughter” by trolls.
Another female player said she was deliberately “held back” and underestimated by other players because she was wearing a headscarf.
The report from Nottingham Trent University and Birmingham City University, titled: How the ‘Beautiful Game’ Turned to Hate: Why Islamophobia has creeped into Grassroots Football, is one of the first to examine Islamophobia at football’s amateur levels.
“We found the scope of this problem is being hidden because victims are afraid to speak out,” said Imran Awan, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University.
The report said the root causes of Islamophobia included a lack of representation of Muslims in top-level football, “trigger events” such as terrorist attacks, and negative reporting of Islam and Muslims in the media.
It pointed out that Muslims are massively under-represented in English professional football, with only 0.3 per cent of elite players from South Asian backgrounds – despite forming 7.5 per cent of the UK population.
“There aren’t many Muslim professional players and you need to ask yourself why,” said one participant.
“That affects us throughout the grassroots level.”
The report also found long-lasting psychological damage to those who suffered Islamophobic abuse.
“I face racism, sexism and Islamophobia. There are times I go home after a match and I cry," a respondent named Huma said.
Another player said they had been to counselling to help deal with the trauma of the abuse.
The authors produced a list of recommendations. The consensus view among participants was that more support was needed from England's Football Association, as well as greater visibility of Muslim role models in football.
“Our aim has been victim-focused and to empower the people we interviewed by giving them a platform whereby they can make suggestions on what should be done to help prevent Islamophobia and racism in grassroots football,” said Dr Irene Zempi, a senior lecturer in criminology at Nottingham Trent University.
Britain has long faced the broader issue of racism at its football grounds, despite high-profile campaigns to eliminate abuse.
The report cites data from the anti-racism charity Kick It Out, which showed there were 422 reports of discrimination in 2018-2019, up from 319 the previous year.
Faith-based discrimination – including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism – also rose sharply in this period, with reports increasing from 36 to 63.
Updated: February 16, 2021 09:11 PM