The curse of the black football manager
'Only thing they ever did wrong was being born black in a white man's world.' - Tupac Shakur
It's a white man's world. If you're either of those two things, chances are life's odds will favour you more than someone who's not white and not a man. If you're a black man in Britain, you're more likely to be unemployed*, more likely to be in prison**, less likely to be in a professional job and less likely to be in higher education***. 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 seems odd to suggest that football has a problem with race. A quarter of all footballers in England are black, but when it comes to black managers, the numbers are pitiful - only five black managers across 92 professional football clubs. At the beginning of this season, there were none.
Those are figures that 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 nous 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 an irrelevance for Hasselbaink, he's been hired and is judged on the merit of his work alone. In some ways it's 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's 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, 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? will be broadcast on Al Jazeera English on Friday 30th January 2015 at 7:30pm GMT and repeated at these times:
Saturday 31st January 1430GMT
Sunday 1st February 0430GMT
Monday 2nd February 0830GMT
It will also be available to view online at: www.aljazeera.com
And at the Al Jazeera English Youtube channel: www.youtube.com/user/AlJazeeraEnglish
** 'Race project research', Prison Reform Trust