Passion and commitment were hallmarks of Paul Elliot the player, and those same characteristics have remained prominent in his efforts to battle discrimination. This ongoing fight is one he has led ever since his career as a powerful, all-action centre-half was prematurely ended by injury, and the former Pisa, Celtic and Chelsea favourite has become one of the cause’s most eloquent spokesmen.
The 48-year-old, whose work was recognised with the award of an MBE in 2003, and who has gone on to advise the UK governments Equality and Human Rights Commission, speaks from experience, having endured racism in each of the three countries in which he played. Encouragingly, he believes that “massive progress” has been made since he hung up his boots, and that football has been and remains a vital tool in stamping out this societal scourge.
Nonetheless, speaking to FIFA.com, Elliott stressed that fresh challenges continue to emerge, and pinpointed complacency as the principal enemy in the continuing battle against discrimination.
FIFA.com: Paul, you have been campaigning tirelessly against racism since you retired from football in 1994. How challenging has that work been, and how much progress do you feel has been made?
Paul Elliott: It’s been hugely rewarding. I felt that I had a responsibility to utilise my own experiences to help achieve real, meaningful and sustainable change. And I do feel that things have improved significantly. There really has been massive progress. That said, there are still plenty of challenges ahead for us all and we have to remain mindful of that.
What did your experiences of discrimination in the Italian, Scottish and English top flights teach you about what was required to stamp it out within football?
What I saw was that, while the fan culture might have differed between these countries, the central issue was still essentially the same. It’s all about educating people. I’ve always said that there are seven billion people in this world and every single one of us is born free of discrimination and prejudice. It’s the influences around people that make them behave in a discriminatory and unacceptable manner. And although we’ve seen that kind of behaviour manifest itself within football, I also came to realise that the game, combined with education and positive role models, is the best vehicle to effect real change.
Is it football’s universality, and the fact that everyone is equal on the pitch, that makes it such a powerful tool?
Absolutely. If you chuck a football down, whether you’re black or white, Christian or Muslim, gay or straight, everyone gravitates to it in the same way and forgets all about their prejudices. That’s the power football has. And I’m delighted to say that the game is far more inclusive now than it’s ever been. It’s setting an example, and that wasn’t always the case. Football has already helped us overcome a lot of barriers, and I’m sure that it will continue to be just as important as we look to tackle the next challenges facing us.
Racism has obviously been an extremely hot topic in football this season, particularly in England. While the incidents that have generated the headlines are obviously disappointing, do you feel that the level of discussion they have created will actually be of benefit in the longer term?
I think so. Apart from anything else, it highlights the fact that, although we’ve come a long way, there are plenty of 21st century challenges still to deal with. The worst thing that could have happened was that people became complacent about racism, and that was a danger. But what’s happened this season has shown us that we need to tackle the problem with the same vigour we’ve shown previously.
What do you think of FIFA’s contribution to the fight against racism?
FIFA do a huge amount of good work in this area. OK, everyone knows that there were some inappropriate comments made recently, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that FIFA and Mr Blatter have done some tremendous work, particularly in Africa. I’ve actually had quite a few dealings with FIFA in the past, mainly with Federico Addiechi and Christian Stamm, and they are top, top guys. I have a great regard and respect for them, and for the work they do. When you talk about leadership, the work FIFA is doing through these guys in Corporate and Social responsibility really is leading the way.
Where do you see the next challenge for football in fighting discrimination?
Homophobia is a big one. That needs to be challenged in the same way racism has been. And there’s still what I would call institutional discrimination in football. We’re actually running a campaign at the moment called ‘Fair Share’, which is aimed at getting better representation for women and minorities in boardrooms, committees, councils and in coaching itself. What we’re talking about here is equality of opportunities. That’s a huge challenge for us, and I’m excited by the prospect of taking it on.