Joanne O'Riordan: FA cover-up on Mark Sampson’s alleged racism is disgraceful
Issues such as race and ethnicity are still a taboo topic in the women’s game
England women’s coach Mark Sampson: despite his departure, tensions will surely simmer among the group and it’s difficult to see how this will affect the team in the future. Photograph: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images
“Are your family coming over from Nigeria for the game?”
“Well, make sure they don’t come over with Ebola.”
This conversation was not overheard in passing on the street. This conversation has England women’s football team coach Mark Sampson embroiled in a race and a bullying row with two former players, Eni Aluko of Chelsea and Drew Spence.
A row which has led to him now losing his job, although the English FA has said Sampson’s dismissal has nothing to do with the alleged racist comments.
Just under two years ago, Sampson was highly praised for his work in turning England around and earning England their best return in a World Cup since the men won in 1966. Sampson was a poster boy manager, young, energetic with an England team which stole headlines from their male counterparts.
He was even nominated for the Manager of the Year award in the 2015 Balon d’Or ceremony, a stark contrast to his male counterpart Roy Hodgson who was, well, Roy Hodgson.
The players themselves are underpaid, why would they risk sticking their neck out?
In 2017, however, the fall from grace in the eyes of the public is something that would turn heads across the board. Sampson and his team returned home from Netherlands after being defeated by the host country to a storm only beginning to brew. It had emerged that Chelsea forward Eni Aluko had taken over £80,000 (€90,000) in hush money from the FA after she made allegations against Sampson saying she was the victim of a racist comment . . . the now infamous Ebola comment.
Shocking and appalling
The events that followed were nothing short of shocking and appalling. Aluko gave an interview discussing the alleged racist remarks and how she was affected by it. Aluko, a lawyer who worked part-time with players and the governing body, said Sampson had asked a player, who at the time wanted to remain anonymous, how many times she had been arrested. Again, this is not a conversation heard on the street, this is a head coach talking to his players during meetings.
The FA sought to quash the storm, so why not send out men’s coach Gareth Southgate to give his counterpart a vote of character. England captain Steph Houghton was quoted as saying, “Mark has allowed us to be open, to be individual, to really be ourselves and be the best players and people we can be. Since Mark’s been in charge, I’ve really enjoyed every moment in this environment”.
Aluko will view this differently. She alleges that by sticking her neck out, she has been dropped from the squad for unLioness behaviour. This can be interpreted in so many ways. Is it wrong for a female player to go against the grain and speak up? Or is it just cheeky of them for demanding more from a sport that already gives them very little?
Nobody was acknowledging the elephant in the room and the FA, by continuing to ignore the problem at that point, was just making it worse
The cover-up by the FA is nothing short of a disgrace. It highlights that issues such as race and ethnicity are still a taboo topic in the women’s game. The players themselves are underpaid, why would they risk sticking their neck out? The backlash against Aluko is enough to deter anyone from even contemplating talking to the FA about a problem.
Despite Sampson’s departure, tensions will surely simmer among the group and it’s difficult to see how this will affect the team in the future.
Around this week’s World Cup qualifiers, press conferences saw PR assistants sitting that bit closer, regulating questions and even making players break a sweat during answers. Team morale is great, the team selections and squad rotations are making us all hungry at the moment. Nobody was acknowledging the elephant in the room and the FA by continuing to ignore the problem at that point was just making it worse, but at least steps seem to have been made.
Despite Sampson’s sacking, Aluko and the other players are now caught in a crossfire which deflects from their end goal – qualification and success for the 2019 World Cup and something to build on for future generations. Ironically, Sampson asked for the media to invest in England’s future after their Euros campaign and he’s sure to get his wish, just for the wrong reasons.
While the spotlight illuminates, right now it’s beginning to burn a hole and create a fire over race and bullying.