Wednesday is the tenth FIFA Anti-Discrimination Day. The FIFA Women's World Cup 2011™ semi-finals, where Sweden meet Japan in Frankfurt and USA play France in Monchengladbach, are dedicated to the global fight against all forms of injustice, discrimination and racism in society.
Steffi Jones, a former world-class defender for Germany and now President of the FIFA Women's World Cup 2011 Local Organising Committee, spoke exclusively to FIFA.com on this crucial topic.
The 38-year-old, the daughter of a US soldier and a German mother, was raised in Bonames, a socially deprived district of Frankfurt. She spoke about her personal experience of discrimination, and the power of football to overcome the scourge of racism. She also discussed what the game can do for the young girls of today.
FIFA.com: Steffi, when did you first become aware of discrimination in football?
Steffi Jones: Well, I honestly didn't really notice it as a little girl. After all, Frankfurt is a genuinely multi-cultural city. But once I started playing at a higher level and began to travel as a result, it was the first time I really sat up and took notice of the fact there were certain spectators who, how shall we say, had a go at you because of your skin colour.
How would you define discrimination?
I can answer this from my own personal experience. It can be because of your colour, your beliefs, or your size – or even because you wear glasses. Basically, discrimination comes in many forms.
How did you cope?
Relatively early on, I learned from my mother to stand up to it, but also to lend a helping hand when fellow school pupils were abused and discriminated against, for example. The fact I had a talent for football gave me a certain standing, and meant I could intervene. Actually, the boys were incredibly respectful, because they knew full well I was a better footballer than them in certain ways. I used to say: ‘Hey, stop that!’ And they stopped.
Did this kind of formative experience have an impact on your development, both as a player and a person?
It's an area where my mother was again very closely involved, in a very positive way. She made me understand that, simply because of my skin colour, it wouldn’t always be easy for me, not only at school, but also once I was working. She led by example: she taught me to be a good person, because she said I'd get good things in return. And that's exactly how it turned out!
What exactly did you tell you?
She taught me never to behave like the people whose heads are full of hate. If someone insulted me, I wouldn't insult them in return, I'd stand up to them and think: ‘That'll come back and bite you at some point.’ She told me never to sink to their level. She said: Steffi, some people go on the sunbed because they want your skin colour. And others pay big money to the hairdresser because they want curls. But nature has given you all this anyway. Be proud of what you have!
What role did football play in this respect?
It was a huge factor in helping me mature as a person. You learn so many things from football, and you really have to be grateful for that – I certainly am. I've been privileged enough to have 31 years learning from the game, so I want to give something back now. Obviously, not every girl will end up in the national team. But you should learn to value everything you can learn and experience from football. Football teaches you what it means to help others. You learn to take responsibility, and that carries over into your everyday life. Here's an example of what I mean: once, after a match, I high-fived some so-called fans, and I heard one of them saying: ‘Hey, now you can say you've shaken hands with a nigger.’ I was speechless, but my team-mates came over and shouted: ‘What kind of a jerk are you?’ Knowing the whole team was behind me was a really great feeling.
Do you have any understanding or sympathy for this kind of bigot?
No, I can't get inside their heads in any way. I take it as a given that you should respect every other person. I'm sad that this kind of thing happens, and I find it even worse that it sometimes turns physical. Words can really hurt, but if it escalates into a physical assault, that's just unbelievably sad. However, it's even more of a motivation to join many, many other people, hand in hand in the fight against discrimination.
What are the benefits to young girls who decide to take up football?
Confidence and self-esteem, the courage to take on a challenge, and team spirit! It doesn't just apply to football, these are lessons for life. You can develop these qualities unbelievably quickly, starting with a single training session. Take this example: you might be scared of heading the ball, but at some point, you overcome your fear and do it for the first time. It's a tiny thing, but in fact it's the first huge step. Very quickly, you start having small successes in football, which actually have a really big impact later. And that's just wonderful.