Paul Canoville attended Parliament in support of our 15th Anniversary. He shared his experiences of racism & discussed the role of footballers in tackling racism.
Paul Canoville, the first black player to play for Chelsea and a prominent educational campaigner, was at a meeting with MPs in Parliament to lobby for Government funding that is essential in allowing Show Racism The Red Card to continue fighting against racism and prejudice.
Afterwards, he spoke with Brendan Simpson about his experiences of racism while playing for Chelsea, his wider views on the struggle to spread education of racism and what more needs to be done in the fight against it...
How long have you been working with Show Racism the Red Card and in what ways have you been involved?
I have been working with the charity for the last three or four years. I was probably noticed because I have been working with Chelsea education department, where I do workshops in schools throughout England. In these workshops I talk to young people about racism but also the importance of education and following their dreams and goals.
The topic of racism is obviously very important to me, what with my history of being the first black player to play for Chelsea. We need to get to the grass roots to make youngsters understand how serious the issue of racism is, not just in sport, not just in football but in the community itself.
I really enjoy working with SRtRC and have been happy to be given opportunities to come and work with them, which I love doing.
What were your early experiences of racism when playing for Chelsea?
To be honest, at first I didn’t really notice what was going on and, playing in the reserves, you just don’t see it and you just get on with trying to fulfil your dream, which for me was to become a professional footballer. While you are just thinking about being here and making it in your dream job, you don’t actually notice anything that is going on around you, and I didn’t until I got into the first team.
When I did get there, I just couldn’t believe my own fans were being racist towards me, though it wasn’t all of the fans to be fair. I couldn’t understand why; I was saying to myself “I am actually playing for you [the fans], for your team”. I didn’t understand it and it took a little while to come to terms with it. I had family members asking me why I was playing for them if that is how I was being treated by some of the fans.
My teammates were supportive though, and it became a case of saying to myself that I was not going to allow a group of ignorant people spoil my dream.
You must see a huge difference nowadays compared to what you experienced?
Oh there is a massive difference. Going back to Stamford Bridge in 2003/4 for the first time since about 1986 and seeing seven black players in the first team was unbelievable. A mate of mine tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Canners, that’s because of you”. I wasn’t too sure at first but now I think me being picked was a breakthrough for some of the younger players and they could now see that being black wasn’t going to stop them from being able to break into the first team.
It’s great to think now, seeing the development and increase of black players at the club, that I started that and may have had some input in that development.
You’ve mentioned your work in communities; how exactly do you go about this?
I work with the Chelsea education department and independently with my own foundation MTC. I talk to young adults in poor areas about things such as racism, knife crime, the rioting and other things like this that their upbringing could bring them into contact with. I ask them if this is a life they really want to follow or do they want to change their lives and that is my mission – dream, believe and achieve.
Even if it is only one out five that listens, goes away and changes, I am happy.
Do you think using football as a vessel for education and change makes a big difference in wider society?
Yes, it makes a big difference when ex-players, and even present players, come out and talk about their experiences with racism. I think that is the main thing that helps SRtRC because we have been there and can give firsthand accounts of racism in the game.
There is still racism in the game and I think it is time that football authorities bring in stricter rules and punishments because they have been too lenient up until now. A slap across the wrist and a small fine is not enough – what difference is a few thousand pounds going to make with the kind of money in football now?
Do you think criticism of the severity of FA punishments for racist abuse can also be attributed to UEFA’s and FIFA’s current record in clamping down on racism?
Yes, UEFA and FIFA are far too lenient and it upsets me because they are supposed to be governing football and setting examples to smaller individual Associations. They have the money and resources to give this support and to force through a strengthening of the stance against racism in football.
Do you think there are enough football role models for children to look up to for education and good examples when it comes to racism and the problems there are with it in the game and wider society?
No, well, I say there aren’t enough of us but there are enough of us – there just aren’t enough coming forward. These young adults need more role models and they look up to the footballers they see on the television or at the ground and it only takes ten or fifteen minutes of the players’ time just to come out and talk to the children about their experiences.
I think there is a real lack of current players who come out and speak to people about these issues and I think it is because the game has changed so much recently. When I was playing in 1981 we loved to go out and meet the fans, take pictures and sign autographs and it was no problem, but these days you can’t get near the players.
It’s all gone wrong and this is what I can’t accept. The current situation needs to change because it’s the current players that have the most influence over the people who watch them week in and week out.
How do you think you can go about trying to get more current players to come out and talk about the issues?
Well the PFA can do a lot as they have the contact with the players and can stress that there is a problem with issues like racism in football and society and children need more role models. They can get that message to the pros and see if they can’t give a bit more time to highlighting the issues aside from interviews for their clubs and sponsors.
I think an important step is to get players to dedicate some more of their time to talk about these issues and be more active as role models. I can’t see there being any problem with just giving a little bit more of their spare time outside of the club and go into communities because we are lacking role models.
Picture: Paul Canoville (Centre) with Sol Campbell and Shaka Hislop. They are promoting our brand new Red Card magazines - now available from our online shop.