New Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari asks fans to be ‘activists, not bystanders’

Paul MacInnes on 12 November 2019

The new chair of Kick It Out, the organisation which campaigns against discrimination in football, has called on supporters to become “activists not bystanders” in an attempt to stifle a new wave of racist behaviour.

Sanjay Bhandari is only the second chair of Kick It Out and replaces the founder, Lord Herman Ouseley, who held the role for 25 years. A former lawyer and member of the Premier League’s independent panel on equality, Bhandari believes football has the ability to lead on racism in society. But he says it also remains a real problem for the game and admits having never reported an incident for fear of the consequences.

In a speech laying out his vision for Kick It Out Bhandari said the landscape had changed for the better in the past quarter-century but that familiar problems remained and some of the anti-racist spirit that characterised the organisation in its early years needs to be rekindled.

“When Lord Ouseley and our founders set out, they faced resistance and their challenge was to get the football industry to engage and change. English football is now completely different,” he said. “I remember vividly that in the space of four weeks in the mid-90s I was abused as a ‘Paki’ twice at Wembley Stadium. In those days I was expected to just accept it as part of the game. When I take my nephews to away games, they do not expect to have to tolerate the kind of abuse I experienced routinely. This generation, the Kick It Out generation, expects better.

“My experience is that [a rise in racist incidents] is not something we are facing afresh. For me when I’m in a stadium the most effective way of damping down an incident is not if I say something but if someone [who is not a person of colour] says ‘pipe down’. Are we engaging the fans to do that? Are we turning bystanders into activists? I’m not sure.

“I’ve never reported an incident in my life, even though I’ve witnessed them. And why don’t I do that? It’s because I’m performing a calculus inside the stadium. What I’m thinking is: how far is it to the aisle? Where are these people, how many mates have they got? Are they going to kick out one of them or five of them? What are the repercussions on me?”

Bhandari, a Manchester United fan, says he will embark on a three-month listening tour in which he hopes to conduct as many as 150 interviews with the game’s stakeholders. But in broader terms he believes there needs to be a joined-up approach to education and a more consistent application of punishments currently available.

England’s partial implementation of the Uefa protocol to combat racist abuse in stadiums during the match in Bulgaria last month was a “missed opportunity”, Bhandari said. The hosts were ordered to play one match behind closed doors (with a further match suspended for two years) and were fined €75,000 for the crowd disturbance in which several England players were racially abused.

“What I really want is an effective set of powers, an effective set of sanctions that apply consistently. That’s what we need, that’s part of the conversation we want to have with all the authorities‚” he said. “In terms of the protocol we’ve had it for 10 years, we’d just like to see it executed consistently. Maybe there was an opportunity, maybe a missed opportunity, to escalate through the whole of that process [in Sofia].

“On the sanctions I think the important thing is to have an effective framework that is consistently applied. Two people could quite reasonably disagree over whether [Bulgaria’s punishment] was an appropriate sanction. I think what’s really interesting is: what do you do with the money? Could you use it to fund education? If you are trying to detect, prevent or react to discriminatory incidents, education is a golden thread that runs through all of that.”

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