Can football help curb anti-Roma discrimination?

Frustration and financial hardship, deep-rooted prejudice, cultural differences and anti-Roma laws have contributed in recent years to an increase of discrimination of and violence against Roma communities in Europe.

The segregation of Roma people has become blatant in all areas of life including schooling, housing, work and health care.

In sport, anti-Roma discrimination and segregation are prevailing. In 2014 alone, anti-Roma incidents in professional football, perpetrated by players and managers, anti-Roma hatred fomented by some ultra fan groups and discrimination at amateur level have brought back to the spotlight enduring negative prejudices and marred matches across Europe.

However, it is also sport, and football in particular, on which thousands across the world rely to integrate, empower and bring people of different backgrounds together.

On the International Roma Day, Fare looks at football’s unifying power as a solution to bring about a social change and curb discrimination against Europe’s largest minority.

The empowering role of football
In March 2014, ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the European People's Party (EPP) working group on Roma organised a hearing on the role of football in Roma inclusion.

The event discussed football’s potential for breaking out of poverty and developing a positive sense of identity, and focused on the game’s popularity as an encouraging factor for Roma participation in competitive and mass sports, as well as a training and education tool for an active life.

Lívia Járóka, Rapporteur on the European Roma Strategy said: “My aim is to establish a tradition of annual awareness-raising football events in order to highlight the role of sports in social inclusion, to contribute to the elimination of ethnic and social discrimination in sports, as well as to achieve better access for socially-disadvantaged Roma to mass and competitive sports”.

Based on these premises numerous organisations and projects throughout Europe use sport to work on the promotion of the cultural legacy of the Roma community, while challenging prejudices and exclusion.

Summer camps in Hungary, organised as part of the project “Ózd – ‘Cseppben a tenger’ Alkotásközpontú Integrációs model”, sporting activities in Italy through “Sportrom”, or the Romanian Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities (PCRM) football empowerment programme, are some examples of initiatives that endeavour to strengthen a greater cooperation between Roma and non-Roma, boost self-image and Roma identity, self-representation skills and individual abilities.

In Albania and Ireland, the NGOs The Door and Sport Against Racism Ireland (SARI) have also found in football a way to address Roma discrimination and explore new ways of empowering migrant and minority communities with various activities from football sessions to internships, capacity building and engagement programmes.

Roma access to sport
According to Járóka, across Europe the participation of the most disadvantaged communities in sports activities and their access to sport facilities was in 2014 below the average.

In Slovakia, a report, published in 2011 by the Institute for Sociology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences Bratislava, revealed that Roma households lack resources to pursuit sport and recreation activities. This, in association with bad public transport and problems in commuting to school excludes most Roma children from leisure activities.

In Spain, where it is estimated that between 1-2% of the total population is Roma, 2013 figures show that 72% of the Roma population live in a situation of exclusion.

Like in Slovakia, Roma youth in Spain and Portugal face similar challenges that have a negative impact on their participation in sport. The inexistence of local clubs in rural areas and poorer neighborhoods, where the Roma often live, and the lack of sport programmes targeting Roma children and youth, add to the economic and cultural challenges.

To counter that, the Barcelona-based Roma organisation Federació d’Associacions Gitanes de Catalunya (FAGiC) has been working with Roma children across the region through an education and football programme, which uses the sport to encourage school attendance and good behaviour.

“FAGiC knows that football is very important to Roma children and we know that they can’t play it because of external factors, so we created a project where children can practice sport as a reward, if they commit to go to school and study.” said Annabel Carballo, representative of FAGiC.

It is estimated that 10-12 million people living in Europe are Roma. As Europe’s largest minority group, their representation across football should be equally visible.

Football’s empowering qualities and inclusive values go beyond the playing field and are propelled across all areas of life. Football, as the most popular sport in the world, should be to accessible to all.

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