Mie Østergaard, an expert in diversity and inclusivity and consultant to sporting organisations and clubs, urges football to take this chance to look at its attitudes, for the sake of its fans – and itself…

I ONCE turned up a little late to watch West Ham at Upton Park with a friend of mine. We were two blond girls and it seems we were fair game for some ‘banter’.

“Cheerleaders are here!” and “Think you’re in the wrong place love!” were some of the comments around us. It was nothing that kept me awake at night, but enough for my friend, whose first football match it was, to be put off ever going with me again.

I hate having to warn a friend that she might have to experience being the target of comments just because we are in a football ground. And that is before any offensive words that might be directed at us, or chanted at other sections of the crowd of the players.

The football authorities need to invest more in this area and to crack down hard on offenders by taking proper action against racism, sexism and homophobia. And fans – yes, us – need to do more as well. It is also up to us to challenge this behaviour not just at games, but all the time. Let’s stand up for each other and be allies.

In 2018, I came up with an idea for a Sky Sports News series, Tackling Racism. The idea for the project was not just to deliver a one-off programme but to create an ongoing conversation about racism in football throughout 2019 while seeking solutions with stakeholders across the football business. I basically wanted to change the industry.

Now, why would a white Danish girl, who is not a footballer, be interested in this topic and care? Well, I’ve worked for many not-for-profit organisations, who use football for good, and I felt I could continue to drive the industry for the better.

I feel there is so much more to do to make football more inclusive and it should be at the forefront of any discussions. It is just not, however. Some male fans can still look perplexed when a group of women enter a stadium. And some fans are still chanting songs with racist or homophobic language. Why? Do you ever see any other sports being played where fans swear and use sexist, racist or homophobic words to insult players, medical staff and other fans? I can’t think of examples.

We often hear people say that politics and football should not mix. Or like right now, some insisting that politics should be set aside in this time of coronavirus. People forget, though, that everything is politics. In fact, there are very few subjects that have not been impacted by parliamentary legislation, be it climate, abortion, education. Everything is politics.

That goes for football too. The Hillsborough disaster, ticket prices, whether you can bring your child to a game – all of it relates back to the politics of the country in which you live.

Some want the football season to be cancelled, others are adamant that it should not. As football fans, we all have our personal preference, but as human beings, shouldn’t we all be on the same page when it comes to health versus wealth? I find it strange hearing people who wouldn’t be willing to shop, use public transport or even drink a beer with a friend expecting footballers to go back to work.

For a long time, football has seemed to exist in its own bubble, not concerning itself enough with the significant problems plaguing its players and fans.

The lack of diversity, the finances and some of the behaviour at matches is unforgivable. And too often, these issues are ignored, and top-earning players are made the easy targets for the game’s problems just because they are paid a lot.

A big problem is that many industries have for generations, and even more since the financial crash in 2008, been all about GROWTH rather than sustainability or ‘rightness’.

If you look at the business world, it has been competition that has kept prices down. The airline industry, its very existence now threatened, has for years been an example of that, with deregulation meaning that budget airlines were allowed access.

But there is nothing to challenge football. There are no direct competitors to the game due to its popularity, among fans and thus television. So how do you challenge and change an industry with no competition? We as consumers keep buying whatever they sell and whatever price they are selling it for. So, should we blame football fans for still loving and buying into football? Why would football change anything? They have fans, money and a market that keeps growing.

Why don’t we use this opportunity to do better and convince our industry to put some funding behind these changes now?

Look at the issue of racism. Football authorities post press release after press release condemning such behaviour from fans and even other players. But rarely is any serious deterring action taken. People look to Kick It Out, but that is just a campaign to fight discrimination in the game. They can’t make rules, issue fines or even make decisions. It is down to the FA, Premier League, UEFA and FIFA to act. So why don’t they do more?

My opinion? It doesn’t make them money. It seems that racism, sexism or homophobia are not things that seem to be stopping consumers buying into football, so why invest in an area that’s not bringing any return?

I believe, that if men’s football were a more inclusive environment, both in stadiums and on social media, many more people would feel they could be a part of it. I don’t want to see an end to chanting or songs, though I do to those that are insulting to certain groups of society. Rugby has shown that you can still have a good atmosphere, and even enjoy a beer, and I haven’t heard of anyone going home in tears vowing never to go to a game again. I’ve certainly seen that at football.

Football will need to stop alienating those like my friend at Upton Park that time and find new audiences in the future if it wants to keep attracting the big money from TV. It makes sense for it to take this current opportunity of rethinking the game to consider ways of being more inclusive moving forward. I will certainly continue campaigning for a more inclusive football industry and I hope others will join me.

*Mie Øestergaard specialises in working collaboratively with organisations to implement new initiatives in order to increase diversity and help create a more inclusive football industry. She created Tackling Racism, a TV series on Sky Sports News. Mie began her career with the Jason Roberts Foundation and Rio Ferdinand Foundation, before opting to become a freelance consultant, working with Women in Football, Aspire Charity and Leon Mann Limited.

Social media: @mieoe