30 April 2021 – The television channel Canvas (VRT) is zooming in on the debate about racism and diversity in Belgian football. The three-part documentary series FC United is full of personal testimonies by amateur and professional football players, up to and including a global icon like Romelu Lukaku. With their stories, they sketch the depth of the problem, in both men’s and women’s football.
But FC United also enters into dialogue with the current policymakers, who are looking for ways to eliminate racism and structural inequality. The series shows the good practices of football clubs that are already doing good work when it comes to diversity in Belgium. The future is clearly up to the new generation of players.
FC United features testimonies from several big, international names. The list includes Red Devil Romelu Lukaku, Red Flame Kassandra Missipo, AA Gent Captain Vadis Odjidja, Antwerp Captain Faris Haroun, Nigerian international player Cyriel Dessers, journalists Filip Joos and Hans Van De Weghe, referees Jonathan Lardot and Zelfa Madhloum, politician and amateur football player Sammy Mahdi, presidents Karel Van Eetvelt and Mehdi Bayat, National Coach Roberto Martinez and dozens of others.
“When I had to go to teams like Beerschot, Lokeren or KV Mechelen, that was the worst. ‘Banana, dirty nigger.’ It’s actually unbelievable. As a child, we had to put up with a lot from parents on the side-lines. Now, I have to put up with it from a packed stadium in Italy.”
Romelu Lukaku (Club: Internazionale)
How diverse is Belgian football? If you look at our Red Devils’ line-up and the players who perform every week in the Jupiler Pro League, there is only one conclusion: it’s very diverse. Both in Belgium and abroad, the Red Devils have even been called an example of Belgian multicultural society. But anyone who looks beyond the façade sees that the players on the field are not a reflection of what’s going on off the field. The stadium seating is almost exclusively filled with white people, never mind the world of trainers, the corps of referees, the boardrooms, the football association buildings and the sports newsrooms.
FC United shows the emotions that go along with racism on the field and brings the whiteness of football structures into focus. But the series also takes a look at the ‘power of change’ that football clubs can have, building a bridge between Belgian and foreign football lovers.
On the field
“I won’t use the words they shout at me. They really hurt me. It dehumanises you. You feel like you’re no longer a person, but an object. My parents have tried to teach me that since I was a child, saying, ‘Cyriel, you’re going to run into that. You can’t do anything about it.’”
Cyriel Dessers (Club: KRC Genk)
Personal testimonies from professional and amateur footballers prove how serious the problem is, in both men’s and women’s football. Slurs on and off the football field are, unfortunately, weekly occurrences. All while our society is growing more and more diverse.
Despite many good intentions from numerous institutions, there seems to be no improvement in sight. To the contrary, the players share the feeling that it’s got worse in recent years. FC United zooms in specifically on the problem, from disgusting slurs to subtle and hidden discrimination. If we want to put a stop to gratuitous insults, then everyone who is closely or remotely involved in the football world must draw the line. That is ultimately the wish of the witnesses in our series.
Behind the scenes
“Players with African roots are still at a disadvantage. Many club managers still think, ‘We’ll give that African some money, and he’ll shut up.’ But that’s not how it works any more.”
Faris Haroun (Club: FC Antwerp)
FC United also looks for structural inequality off the field, and ways of changing it. All major aspects of football are covered, including refereeing, coaching, the staff, the fans and the world of management. How come we don’t have a single referee with a migration background at the very highest level? Why are the managers of our professional clubs predominately white men? In our trainer’s guild, too, there is not much diversity to be found.
The world’s most popular sport must undergo a transformation in Belgium, as well. All areas of the sport need to better reflect our society. That will require courage and action, but only then can we speak of a fully inclusive playing field. And then, hopefully, football can serve as an example for many other sectors in our society.
In the media and in the stadium
“Once, at Cercle Brugge, I stopped the game. I took the ball in my hands, ran to the side-lines and shouted, ‘What, exactly, is your problem?’ During the ride back home, I had a very long discussion with my grandfather about racism. I will never forget it.”
Zinho Gano (Club: KV Kortrijk)
What role do sports media and sports reporting play in discrimination in our football, or combatting it? The witnesses demonstrate that it’s not an easy debate. What is discriminatory and what is fair reporting? FC United tries to find the line. Various voices are heard. But there are also good examples, and many clubs are taking initiatives to improve diversity and inclusivity.
FC United is a production by Deklat binnen (De kleedkamer) for Canvas.
FC United: starting Monday, May 3rd, at 9.20 p.m. on Canvas and VRT NU
Because of the series, as of May 3rd, VRT NU will also be bundling a number of other programmes about racism and discrimination on the FC United page. These include the documentaries Enslaved with Samuel L Jackson, Ku Klux Klan, Une Histoire Américaine, The Central Park Five, and Kinderen van de Kolonie, as well as the films Detroit and Skin.