Joseph-Antoine Bell moved to Europe at an age some players are already considering life after professional football. But for the Cameroonian goalkeeper it was the start of a wonderful eight-year career that saw him retire as a 39-year-old in 1994 after playing for Olympique Marseille, Toulon, Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne.
He was one of the first African goalkeepers to ply his trade at the highest level in Europe, and he spoke to FIFA.com about discrimination and racism shortly before the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which is celebrated on 21 March.
FIFA.com: What do you consider as discrimination?
Joseph-Antoine Bell: Every time you select somebody or do not select him because of something that he can't change of himself, that is discrimination. Once you say: 'I need only tall guys', it is discrimination against those who are not tall. So it is the same when you say I need to get white players, or I don't want to get black players, it is discrimination. And obviously it is injustice because you are blaming someone for something he can't change and for something that he did not ask for.
Were you confronted with discrimination in your own career?
Yes, obviously. Not really when I was still playing because possibly I was playing so well, they could not say that they didn't need me. But you had some pre-judgement, like people thinking that you can't or you won't do certain things because of this or that. But I don't think I had discrimination from real people, from those who matter. If discrimination comes from the crowd, you can't really blame them in a way as they are not really responsible for changing things. Yes, I suffered from it, maybe from some players. But then I think I was so strong that when I suffered from it, I did not feel that I was suffering from it. When I was confronted with it, I always believed that those I was talking to, or those that I was facing were obviously people who were not very intelligent. So how can you either blame yourself, or even others for not being intelligent? You can't!
The way you behave and the way you talk will bring them to change because discrimination is about understanding.
Did you try to change them?
Of course. You have to talk to people and try to change them, but not only by talking about this matter. By your behaviour and by the way you think. Those kind of people will not understand their own mistake if you talk to them. If you come and say you are doing this or that, it is not good. How do you want them to listen to you? Because if they are already discriminating against you, they won't change because you are talking to them. The way you behave and the way you talk will bring them to change because discrimination is about understanding. If people don't understand, they can't behave properly, so you need to change their mind and you need to change the way they think before you can expect them to change.
How can football help to fight discrimination?
By implementing the rules properly. But do you know that there is no rule that will change people because it is people who implement the rules. It is important that all people involved know the issue themselves. If you disagree with violence, then you can't have players being violent. If you disagree with cheaters, then you can't have players cheating. If you yourself are a cheater, then your players will be cheaters. And it is the same with discrimination. All people involved in football must be very aware of that and we must really take care of not giving a wrong message.
Was it easier playing in France, where there are a lot of black players?
No, I was the first black goalkeeper. It was not easier for me, but it was easier for those who are coming behind me. At the time everybody thought a black man could not be clever enough or serious enough to be a goalkeeper. They thought 'you cannot trust a black goalkeeper, he can't be trustworthy'. They did not expect a black man to be a good goalkeeper, but since I did it, now they can have any black man. This is why I say it is through behaviour that you can change people. Those who were thinking a black man could not be serious enough to be a goalkeeper were right at that time for themselves because they had not seen one previously. But once they had seen one, then they knew that they were wrong and my actions managed to change their opinions.