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Landmark week for Kick It Out

KICK IT Out, the charity I'm proud to work for, has had a landmark week. As part of a programme of events to mark our 25th year of fighting all forms of discrimination in football, the England v Switzerland international on Tuesday in Leicester was dedicated to our work.

This was unquestionably great recognition- and I am grateful to the FA for doing it- but I want to tell you another story about why what happened at the King Power stadium this week was more than just ceremonial.

Balraj Singh Notay is, like hundreds of thousands of kids in this country, football mad. He’s been playing the game since he was three and is developing into a very talented midfielder who has a few tricks up his sleeve and isn’t afraid to tackle. But it might not have turned out that way.

When Balraj was seven he went to a football camp. Another kid there told him to take the “snowball” off his head (referring to his traditional Patka or turban) and asked him if he was English.
Balraj got a form of revenge by running rings round him on the pitch but when Jasjit, his dad, came to get him, the seven year old was clearly upset. He was persuaded to try another camp. The same thing happened.

Balraj decided he wasn’t going to leave it there. His school- Wigton Moor Primary- has an Equality Council. He stood for election, won and then, with the help of his head teacher Mrs Bown, invited Kick It Out to come and do a school assembly.

My colleague Osei Sankofa spoke to the whole school about diversity, equality and inclusion. Balraj went to a Bradford City football camp and loved it. He now supports the Bantams and Manchester United. He was there as I was on Tuesday night too. While I was sitting in the stands, Balraj was one of the mascots and came out accompanied by Danny Rose, Harry Maguire and Marcus Rashford.

“It was the best night of my life” he said.

It was his birthday too and Jasjit has jokingly had to admit that he’ll have trouble topping that as a present for future birthdays! Balraj and Jasjit’s story tells you why we do what we do. And how far we’ve come. And yes, how far we have to go. We might have lost Balraj to football- and who could have blamed him- but thankfully we haven’t and he’s even now bossing the midfield on a pitch somewhere in Yorkshire.

Sky’s coverage of the England match featured a 25 second part as the players- and Balraj- were coming out of the tunnel – in black and white. It was a great symbolic gesture (the idea was from David Gerty at the FA) not only to mark our anniversary – and especially with this diverse England team- but also because it sparked debate in living rooms up and down the country.

Kids of Balraj’s age won’t remember black and white television or what football was like back then. People have told me that parents were having to explain to their kids why the picture was like that and what it signified.

They were having a conversation about racism and discrimination and were hopefully better informed for it. In a document (“Football in Pursuit of Equality, Inclusion and Cohesion“) Kick It Out produced at the end of 2017 we said “It is essential for the game as a whole to be better informed as it responds to the equality and inclusion challenges, in a coherent way and not be fearful of change.”

It’s taken a while but I feel a sense that the whole of football is having a conversation about it. As much as I felt the pride on Tuesday night in Leicester, I was also aware that grassroots clubs and professional sides all over the country have been devoting games to Kick It Out for years so, if I was being churlish (and i’m not) I could say “what took England so long?”.

I presented the first of our new podcast series called the “Kick It Outcast” in which we asked the great and the good in the game about what they’d like to see happen in the next 25 years in terms of equality and inclusion in the game.

Our chair, and Voice columnist, Lord Ouseley, said he wanted Kick It Out to go out of business. Ok, he didn’t put it quite like that but what he meant was “wouldn’t it be good if we weren’t needed anymore?”.
At the moment that feels like a utopian dream – we called last year for all of football’s governing bodies to come together to monitor, co-ordinate and encourage practical steps towards inclusion in all aspects of the game.

Not just in the England team where diversity is there for all to see but in the boardrooms, the dug outs, in the stands and among the administrators.

This week was definitely a small step towards that- in terms of awareness and recognition for what we are doing but for me- and possibly for young people like Balraj – it isn’t happening fast enough.

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