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Home   /   Critical Investigation: Football racism in Finland

“Every one of us were together in the same line”

Mohammad Al-Emara´s name rose to every football fan´s lips in Finland from his actions in 2017 at a First Division game Haka-KTP. In that game the Iraqi born football referee did suspend bravely the match, when he heard racist slurs coming from the stands.

Al-Emara´s actions was given full of praise and made him one of the biggest referee names in the Finnish Football. He has been after that chosen twice to the referee of the year.

As a football referee, Al-Emara faced his first racist abuse experience in 2013. At the start of his career, he was whistling a 14-year-olds – tournament fixture between TPS and JJK, when someone´s parent shouted him a racist slur from the stands.

“He shouted that I should take my whistle off my mouth and put a banana in there. I didn´t hear it during the game, but after it my referee colleagues told me what have been shouted from the stands, Al-Emara recalled.

“The referee observer from the Finnish FA had also filmed this person and I took the case forward.”

The case felt personally tough for Al-Emara, who had suffered from abuse on his playing days. He did feel that the punishments his abuser was given weren´t hard enough in contrast to person´s purposely malice actions.

“I reacted very strongly to the case. I suffered stuff like this as a player and it was now happening again, when I was refereeing. I just couldn´t take it anymore and wanted to take the case forward.

“Somehow, I got a feeling that the case was swept under the carpet. He wanted to come to say that he was sorry and he wouldn´t have any business to come to the stands again. He was banned from the stadium and stuff, but none seriously tough actions weren´t taken.

“I said to him honestly, that I didn´t want to see that person anymore. I wasn´t interested to any of his apologies.”

Al-Emara was born in 1992 in a Saudi Arabian refugee camp. His parents escaped the war in Iraq after the dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded the country. The family moved to Finland when he was only two-years old.

He was a promising football prospect as a junior and won the Finnish championship in the Under-20 squad of Inter Turku. Football was his road to integrate in the Finnish society.

The hard work ethic has followed to his refereeing career. He prepares to the games like a professional and keeps himself on fit shape.

When whistling Second Division games in Southern Finland, Al-Emara didn´t face further racism until 2017, when he was refereeing Finnish First Division fixture between Haka and KTP in Valkeakoski. Shortly after the match started, someone shouted a racist slur from the stands, which he was informed of by his assistant.

He made a tough decision suspending the game and guiding both teams back in the dressing room. The courage came from the antiracism-campaigns, which had encouraged Al-Emara to make a significant action against racism he suffered from.

Al-Emara said:

“The response coming from the field was amazing. Every one of us were together in the same line.

“As a referee I have faced very little of racism, which would be between the players or players and coaches. If something has happened, it has come from the stands, which is a bigger problem.

“Every club have become multicultural with players from foreign backgrounds. That has had a massive impact.”

Al-Emara does personally feel that that in Finnish football social media racism is often strongly connected to doubts of match-fixing on internet forums. The reason can be found in recent history with clubs like AC Allianssi and Tampere United being buried under match-fixing -scandals.

For an example the season 2010 Finnish premier League champions Tampere United was suspended a year later, because their owner Singapore national businessman Wilson Raj Perumal had made £0.9m profit from the fixed games.

It was published later in the court that Perumal had earned in total of 210.000 dollars for fixing results in Finnish league matches since 2008.

TamU had received 435.000 dollars from a company from Singapore, and the Finnish officials couldn´t explain why such a large sum was given to the club.

The case was connected to the trial in 2011 where two Zambian brothers playing for another Finnish club RoPS were convicted of accepting bribes worth of 750 000 dollars from Perumal.

Along the brothers five other Zambians and two Georgians from the same team were given jail sentences ranging from six months to 20 months.

Businessman behind all the crimes Perumal was convicted of forgery, bribery and illegal border crossing. He was arrested after having entered Finland with a fake passport.

Al-Emara recognises how the match fixing cases has risen people´s doubts towards foreign players coming to the league and built on racist thoughts.

He said:

“Racism isn´t always just slurs and other words. I have faced stuff like when some player with foreign heritage makes a mistake in a game, he can easily get a stamp that it had been match fixing.

“These kinds of cases are always sad, especially if it isn´t true. I label these doubts as racism. If a Finnish white player makes a similar mistake, anyone rarely thinks it´s connected on match fixing.

Al-Emara feels personally that the fight against racism has made things better in Finland. Minorities has been heard and the conversation culture has changed to more open than ever before.

Football referees are also educated to recognising forms of racism. They have invented a three-part plan, which is used in games to take actions against racist acts. First the player is called, second, he is removed from the pitch, and at the last the match is suspended.

Even the racism isn´t as bad issue as it was in Finnish sport, the problem is still there. Al-Emara remembers the most recent case, when his referee colleague Peiman Simani was racially abused in a game repeating his own experiences.

The case happened on March 2021 a week after Glen Kamara´s case in the Europa League knockout fixture against the Czech side Slavia Prague, when the Rangers midfielder was abused by fellow player, Slavia defender Ondrej Kudela.

Kudela was given a 10-game suspension for using an abusive slur against Kamara. Rangers’ midfielder was also punished with a three-game-ban after assaulting Kudela in the player tunnel.

Kamara came forward later in an honest interview for the ITV news of his feelings after the disgusting row with Kudela. The Finnish International also admitted receiving daily abusive messages on social media.

“If I could go back to the time of the game I´d walk off the pitch, 100%. The manager was trying to get me off the pitch, but it was like I was on my own and I couldn´t hear anybody. I had a lot of emotions going on my mind. Angry, upset, I felt humiliated”, Kamara said to the ITV.

Kamara´s case rose in the news around the world receiving international attention. To Al-Emara the media´s behaviour felt hypocrite, because at the same time his referee colleague´s suffer was ignored.

Simani´s words wasn´t taken seriously.

Al-Emara said:

“In this case they didn´t believe to the referee´s words. I think that was the bottom of a pit that we as a referees had the mission reporting racism.

“He (Simani) was shouted racist slurs, and he reported it, but suddenly anyone didn´t believe to his words.

“It (Kamara´s case) was selling to the media, so it was raised on the barricade. After that I started thinking is this fight against racism selective? If we can get the public audience with us, we can take it forward.”

The manner, how Simani´s case was treated compared to Kamara´s lifted heavy emotions on Al-Emara. He felt that his colleague didn´t receive the support that he deserved from the mentally tough experience.

“If the case is with a referee, who have heard racist slurs, it isn´t cool anymore to help and it´s just swept under the carpet. No one believes a referee.

“In this case the team sends a message under the pressure, that nothing has happened. They´re afraid of fines and losing their reputation. When it happens, it happens, and it must be reported.”

Al-Emara personally sees gaps in the discriminatory system, when reporting of racism. Investigations are handled superficially and might be closed prematurely due to lack of relevant evidence.

Al-Emara said:

“The biggest issue is that sometimes the actions doesn´t meet the words. When people really need to come forward, we go hiding.

“I would say that in this case increasing knowledge and doing a work long term with the issue, would make it easier to people coming forward.”

In other football countries some high-profile players, like Thierry Henry has started to boycott social media after suffering from online abuse. Deleting your personal profile is seen as a statement against online abusers.

Can escaping be an answer to stop racist behaviour?

Al-Emara thinks that social media could work also the opposite way.

“The platform could be also used in fighting against racism. Social media companies should also take responsibility to prevent it. Now it is an open jungle for all kinds of slurs.”

How could racism happening on social media and on the pitch be prevented and controlled better?

Farrington (2015) argues if there are weak penalties in place, then it is likely to increase one’s chances of posting online racism and abuse. 1

Al-Emara´s opinion is that harder punishments on racism are not in it´s own enough to prevent abuse. More important than that is to come openly forward, and not to be frightened of what will happen if you do have enough courage to speak of your issues.

The most important thing is to be able for open conversation and not to treat racial issues as a taboo.

“When you inform about these cases, everyone is afraid, if they anger someone by saying this. This is nothing to do with opinions, where you´re scared to hurt someone´s feelings. This is serious.

“If we do message for the red card to racism, it is a red and not a yellow card. I think that if people do want to understand more these issues, they will understand.

 “I believe that this discussion which we had had around the subject has had a positive impact on how this fight against racism is seen. The discussion is now open and that´s a start.”

Pioneer campaigning to break racist prejudices

“Prejudices itself are not racism”

Punainen Kortti Rasismille (Red Card to Racism) -campaign was started on 2003 by the Finnish multicultural exercise association (FIMU ry). The campaign, which was founded in United Kingdom is coordinated in cooperation with the Finnish player association (JPY) and their goal is to spread the message against racism and abuse.

Former professional footballer Ilari Äijälä worked as a PKR: s Project Manager from 2016 to 2020. When he started in his position, talking about racism was a taboo in Finnish Sport. The topic was avoided, as the people were afraid of the negative consequences talking about it could cause.

Äijälä promoted the project and their message against racism mostly by himself using social media as an important platform and going to games. Red colour was used as symbol for the strict message.

The campaign started from football, but Äijälä did spread it over later to all other Finnish sports like basketball, handball and floorball. The idea was that every sport would be welcome to lift a red card to racism.

Äijälä feels that after the racist abuse cases been spreading front of the public audience, they have received more attention on media.

When the cases are in front of the public eyes, they must be intervened.

Äijälä said:

“Social media is a one factor, why things can´t be anymore swept under the carpet. Racist slurs coming from the stands has now woken up more discussion than in the beginning of the 21st century or in 2010s.

“Before there were also all kinds of slurs, like calling out someone gay or “hurri” (slur for Swedish people) or any else racist slurs. They just didn´t come out to the publicity.

“When a case will go out in public, it must be handled. That how our PKR-project has speeded up a way of thinking, that there should be a reporting channel for racist abuse case and discipline procedures.”

In Finland the prejudice towards match fixing is a massive problem on building racist prejudices. Äijälä sees it as a serious problem especially in smaller towns in the country.

“Some single mistakes done by players have been questioned. From the Finnish clubs especially RoPS (from Northern Finland Rovaniemi) has had racist shouting from their stands. It´s also that how small town to you go to, the prejudices increase.

“They don´t have as multicultural people around their close contacts. It´s often about prejudice.

“But prejudices itself are not racism. Humans have naturally had prejudices towards other people. The cases where it shows on person´s behaviour is luckily rare.”

During his time as the project manager, Äijälä also invented a captain´s armband for teams to use to make the group’s message even stronger.

The armband is a symbol against all kind of discrimination, like homophobia, bullying and sexual harassment. PKR also created a Rainbow Laces Finland -campaign, where they sent around Finland in years 2017-2018 rainbow-colored shoelaces in support to the sexual minorities.

In 2018 they also started the You Are Not Alone -service to prevent discriminating behaviour and harassment in sport. The service offers their help on phone and chat to the sports juniors, their parents and guardians.

The roles of the campaigns are to promote equality on exercise and sport.

“Captain´s responsibility is to be a great role model, not only to just his/her own team, but also to their opponents, referees, crow and to everyone working around the sport, the purpose of the armband is explained on PKR: s website.

“With power of the sport we want to inspect critically sport norms and break through with the power against all kind of compartmentalisation and disparaging.

“Sport and exercise are not a separate part from the society and this symbol expresses that they should belong to everyone, and everyone should be allowed to be themselves in sport.”

Äijälä believes himself that by showing red card to racism, using the captain armband as a symbol or having a say no to racism -mark on stadiums can affect people to think how they should behave.

Equally important is to understand what racism exactly is and what it is not. False accusations can create even worse problems on raising up prejudices.

Äijälä said:

“The racism card is sometimes lifted too easily. It´s important to understand what racism really is, or the word will lose its meaning. It is important to understand what it really is, how it appears, and what is not racism.

“It can hurt sometimes even a lot more, if every side doesn´t understand it. I believe myself that increasing the knowledge is the best way to help to understand racism. The other important one is the significance of your own actions.”

Äijälä doesn´t remember that any specific player would have been in contact with PKR regarding suffering from social media abuse. The reported cases have been mostly slurs on specific social media posts or doubts of match fixing.

For the match fixing doubts regarding to player´s foreign heritage Äijälä invented together with the Finnish player association an application called Red Button, which have later spread out for use of the international player association FIFPRO.

Red Button is a smartphone app to allow professional footballers to safety report match-fixing approaches. It can be downloaded by players using receipt of a code distributed by the players´ union affiliated to FIFPRO.

University of Liverpool listed in their report on “Protect Integrity Plus” from December 2019 strengths of the app:

– Guaranteed anonymity. The app offers maximum protection of the reporting player´s identity.

– The app is easy to use.

– The app is used by players only.

– Reports are filtered through a party independent of the sport

– Red Button is distributed by FIFPRO´s affiliated player unions.

“It is an anonymous channel, where you can report if someone has contacted you of racist abuse or you have witnessed it yourself”, Äijälä described The Red Button -app.

Holding his role on PKR Äijälä liked a lot to work with children and young people, because they were building on the future generation. The conversation culture was created by visiting schools and reporting cases to principals and teachers.

He had a role of an outsider, who students could open about bullying and abuse, which they didn´t want or feared to talk about to their teachers.

“I felt it important that some outsider was visiting there to talk about racism and abuse. The kids didn´t have courage to report to teachers, but some person coming outside the school to help was easier to talk about it, Äijälä said.

“Social media bullying can be nowadays very invisible. How can you react to private messages, if the player doesn´t want to come forward of them?”

The PKR: s work towards more open conversation culture around racism has changed the situation to a lot better position. Today the cases are rarely ignored and swept under the carpet, like there isn´t any problem existing.

Äijälä said:

“There have been also in Finland cases, where the punishments haven´t been given because the lack of evidence. These cases have been also expressed to publicity with a very few words.

“When I was in PKR, I made sure to inspect every case carefully and all through. Even if it would be a misunderstanding or because of thoughtlessness, it should still be inspected. It´s the only way to change the culture.”

New foreign players do arrive every year to the Finnish football leagues. When they immigrate to the new country, they don´t know where they can report to, if they suffer racism.

Äijälä thinks it would be extremely important to have international guidelines to these players to prevent racist abuse happening. He believes that foreign players should also have a trusted person to inform of abuse, if they do face it after arriving to country.

“If we do have guidelines for this stuff only in Finnish, in the end it doesn´t help that many people. It is also depending on resources. It would be also important to increase the role of SUEK (Ethic centre of the Finnish Sport), so that they would always have someone who could follow and record abuse cases.

“It would be great to always have some certain person, who they can be in touch with. There should be people who can use their working hours just to fighting against racism and other forms of abuse. If we don´t get information from the cases, it builds a delusion that there is no problem. It shouldn´t never go on that point.

“I think every club in Finland doesn´t always know where to contact in racism cases, where to report it and what kind of options do you have on supporting the victim.”

Äijälä would wish that Finnish people and media would focus more for positive sides of competitive sport instead of only the negativities.

“In Finland the sport discussion comes mostly from negations. As a sports person I would also like to hear about those positive sides. Even the bad sides of the sports had not being lifted so well front here, there should be a balance between the good and bad.

“We have increased the knowledge and understanding of racism and right and wrong action. We have also been part of changing the culture.

“We created the conversation culture, and we are in many channels to help people, but also the clubs to recognise how you can interrupt on racism.”

Stereotypes and prejudices in dual-citizen footballer´s life

People have prejudices of black people, even if we have never met”

Abdulkadir Said Ahmed knows what the daily life of a dual-citizen footballer in Finland can be like surrounded by the racist prejudices and jokes, which disparages his presence in the club.

 Born in Somalia at Mogadishu, Said Ahmed moved in Finland as a refugee when, he was six-years old. He was raised by a single mother in a family of 10 siblings growing up in Joensuu, a city in Eastern Finland.

His playing career also started from Joensuu, were he played for their local club JoPS. The family moved from Joensuu to a city in Southern Finland Vantaa, where he played in Under 18-squad of VJS, which is also his current club.

The worst experience of racist abuse in Said Ahmed´s life happened in last season when he was playing for NJS, a Finnish club from Nurmijärvi. The atmosphere in the team was discriminative towards black players, and racist jokes like stereotypes were an everyday thing.

Simons (2007) argued in his journal The athlete stigma in higher education of a “dumb jock” image stereotype of black athletes. The theory suggests that black athletes have limited abilities, lack motivation and they do not perform well academically. 2

One quite usual prejudicial stereotype is black athletes being naturally talented compared to white people who have worked hard for their success.

Said Ahmed´s physical traits like running speed, and high stamina were stereotyped as natural gifts of a black player, instead as result of the hard work in the training ground.

Everything happens as a joke, which isn´t funny in any way.

Said Ahmed said:

“They do joke that the Africans are faster runners than the Finnish people. There´s a lot of prejudices, which I should take as a joke.

“For me it feels terrible, especially as it´s coming from your own coach. Sometimes when the team offered bananas in the games, coach said to me: Take a banana to your family, like we couldn´t afford it.”

The feeling of not being accepted in your team was worrying inside Said Ahmed´s mind. The coaches wasn´t taking his talents seriously and that fact did hurt his feelings.

None of his teammates wouldn´t interrupt to the abuse, because they weren´t willing to take a racism card because of a joke. Sometimes even the locker room laughed along, when the coach made an inappropriate joke of him.

Devine (1989) lists laziness, athleticism, and lack of intelligence as global stereotypes of black athletes. 3

“They are jokes, but those situations can be sometimes very humiliating. Also, one time I asked for boots, but I was told that I can play without shoes barefooted like in my home country. People have prejudices of black people, even we have never met.”, Said Ahmed described his experiences.

Said Ahmed doesn´t play for NJS anymore as he moved to VJS Vantaa, playing in the Finnish second division Kakkonen (third highest in the country). He also played for the same team in his junior years.

His one-year older brother Ahmed Said Ahmed is also a footballer playing with him in VJS. They both represents the Somalia´s National team. The duo´s older brother Suldaan Said Ahmed is a politician in the Finnish Parliament.

He has also played in the Finnish top division Veikkausliiga for KTP and Palloseura Kemi Kings.

Said Ahmed underlines that the worst racist behaviour happens inside the locker room. He has never been abused from the stands by fans.

“In Finland fans rarely shouts anything like that. The fans are the most human people here and they understand diversity, he said.

Wherever Said Ahmed had moved in to play, there has always been prejudices. Some of them have been based to old players who had played in team before him.

“The biggest and the worst cases happens inside the team. Jokes and prejudices. They always somehow connect you to some their old black player, who did bad things when playing for them. They assume that you would repeat the same actions, that he did.”

“Wherever I have played, there has always been two to three black players who have been treated completely differently compared to the Finnish people.”

Racist abuse from your own manager is something that has been happened also in United Kingdom recently. League 2 -club Crawley Town´s manager John Yems has been investigated by the FA of repeatedly using racist language and segregating players.

Yems ,62, was accused by claims made of his seven players of separating his players into different dressing rooms based on the colour of their skin. Crawley Town announced on Friday 6th May 2022 that hey have parted ways with their manager.

According to Sky Sports the seven players took their complaints to the player association PFA, who are investigating the case.

Anti-racism campaigner Shaun Campbell described the allegations against Yems to the Sky News as a “modern day apartheid”, which doesn´t belong in the present or future and labelled it as an ultra-low point in the fight against racism.

Said Ahmed made his debut on Somalia´s National team in November 2019 against Djibouti in the CECAFA Cup, which is the oldest football tournament in Africa. Being called by the country he was born was a dream come true for the young prospect who has currently five caps in the team.

Even playing on qualifier games in Africa, Said Ahmed heard slander of the level of Somalian football. Honour to being called to international games wasn´t taken seriously.

Somalia is currently ranked 194th in the FIFA ranking over 100 spots below Finland (58). The Ocean Stars played their most recent international game in June 2021 losing to Oman in Arab Cup.

Said Ahmed said:

“The level of the Somalia´s National team has been disparaged. When you are called to the Somalia´s National team, they don´t think it´s as important honour as compared to getting called to the Finnish squad.”

When facing racism, Said Ahmed didn´t have any idea how he could report it. He feared the possibility of negative consequences that could happen.

Would it affect on his game time and status on team? For him the risks were too high to come forward.

“When the team manager makes that racist joke of you, you don´t have any idea who you could talk about it, because he´s the person with the highest status in the team. If he behaves like that all the time, you don´t really know what to do it.

“I had to also think it from several perspectives. In the end I chose to stay silent and accept it, because I didn´t know who I could talk about it. It was tough that people didn´t accept you the way you are, or they treated you as a joke.

“You should just focus on your job and the games, but at the same time they assume that Africans play football without shoes.”

Keeping the bad thoughts in your head and not being able to talk anyone has been mentally rough for Said Ahmed. It has been affecting negatively on his motivation and preparation to the games.

It is easy lose your focus, if you do feel unwanted in your team. Negative energy in the dressing room destroys your morale.

“It takes your energy and affects your preparation to games a lot. You don´t want to give 100 percent of your energy what you could do.

“The fact that your club manager says something like that makes you feel bad, and you are starting to feel that you don´t want to play in that team anymore. He takes a hold of you.”

Racism in the Finnish football is rare on social media, because the sport´s presence here isn´t as significant compared to the big European leagues. Some discriminative commenting can happen on posts and forums and no abusive messages are sent privately.

In popularity football is in Finland behind the country´s most popular ball game ice hockey.

Said Ahmed thinks that there are gaps in methods how the racism cases are handled. The inspections are often done only generally and not in person with the players.

Even campaigns like Red Card to Racism has evolved the discussion around racism more open, Said Ahmed feels that there is still work to do towards equal society.

The meaning of the red racism card as a symbol could be expressed a lot clearer.

“It should be clarified more detailed what the red card means and there should be people in the clubs watching the team and asking opinions from the players.”

In addition, Said Ahmed suggest another improvement, which could make the wellbeing of the minorities better. That would be a specific person who players could contact to, when they are facing racist abuse.

The issue is that in the end it is a resource question, on what areas the government is willing to invest in.

Steele (2010) declared that the threat of negative stereotypes and racist practices can have pernicious effects on decision-making and behaviour patterns for those targeted. 4

As Said Ahmed´s opinion a trustful support person to confine after facing racist treatment. An expert you can trust your words and worries.

“There should be a contact person who you could freely talk about this stuff. People who would be active and focused on racism cases.

“A person who´s task would be only taking care of the racism cases. If you don´t have anyone to talk to, you must think can you come forward fearing that it would affect your game time and position in the team, he finishes.”

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May 2024