Sport and Discrimination: Mapping prejudice in Europe through football

Sport and Discrimination: Mapping prejudice in Europe through football
Players take a knee before a Euro 2020 match between Belgium and Italy. - Copyright Andreas Gebert/AP

Robert Oulds

Executive Director of ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies



The national game of many European nations is football, its numerous professional club sides are amongst the most wealthy and successful on the planet. Underlying this success, and the basis of these riches and glory, is an active amateur game. However, the foundations are being hampered by a disreputable secret. Discrimination against immigrants and ethnic minorities regrettably persists even in football. If it can be found there then that brings into question notions that European society is free from racism and other forms of discrimination.

Whilst sport is a medium to bring people together, it can also be a window on how much progress society still needs to make. The authors of a highly enlightening report Mapping discrimination in Europe through a field experiment in amateur sport indeed use this as a tool by which we can monitor levels of discrimination. This is important, European society is becoming ever more multicultural with members who migrated from various other countries. This diversity consists of immigrants, their descendants, often of a minority ethnic background living alongside the indigenous population. However, it has long been suspected, though sometimes disputed, that the new arrivals and their descendants face discrimination. This bias against them manifests itself in the form of fewer opportunities for housing and labour, as well as a higher level of exclusion from other aspects of society and the economy.

The beautiful game

One would expect that new arrivals may indeed take time to advance through the education system and improve their economic position, material well-being, and life chances. Perhaps that accounts for any discrepancies that is shown in society between native and migrant populations? Yet, the field of amateur sport short not be affected by factors that create inequality; if indeed it is then there may well be a disreputable factor at work.

In this study, pretend email accounts were created using typical names that suggested the sender was of an indigenous background and others were made that purported to be from people with foreign-sounding names that nevertheless represent a sizable proportion of residents of the country in which each club operates. As per the report, researchers contacted 23,020 amateur football clubs in 22 European countries, asking to participate in a training session. The results were compared and contrasted. Response rates differed across countries and were, on average, about 10% lower for when answering a person with a foreign-sounding name. The conclusion that can be surmised from that field experiment reveals discrimination against ethnic minority groups, uncovering organisational deficiencies in a system trusted to foster social interactions.[i]

Figure 1.

This was clearly a comprehensive study. The scale of the endeavour is shown in figure 1. Each red dot represents a club that was contacted.

This was clearly a comprehensive study. The scale of the endeavour is shown in figure 1. Each red dot represents a club that was contacted.

The magnitude of the research is illustrated by the number and location of the amateur football clubs that were used in this study. According to the authors 22 countries were selected: Austria (n = 1,840), Belgium (n = 663), Croatia (n = 447), Czech Republic (n = 1,598), Denmark (n = 1,135), England (n = 1,527), Finland (n = 536), France (n = 1,847), Germany (n = 1,681), Greece (n = 437), Hungary (n = 345), Ireland (n = 308), Italy (n = 1,463), Norway (n = 999), Poland (n = 1,312), Portugal (n = 791), Romania (n = 493), Russia (n = 1,143), Serbia (n = 383), Spain (n = 1,410), Sweden (n = 1,493), and the Netherlands (n = 715).

For each of those clubs the main email address was identified and the administrator or the head coach was contacted. Emails expressed interest only in joining a trial training session and read as below:

Subject: Trial practice


I would like to take part in a trial training session with your team. I have already played at a similar level. Could I come for a trial training session?

Many thanks,


Responses were then awaited.


According to the research, the overall response rate was roughly 44%. The pooled results from all countries show that foreign-sounding names received significantly fewer responses than native-sounding names (0.495 vs. 0.391; average treatment effect (ATE) 0.102; Mann–Whitney Uz = −15.92, P = 0.00, n = 23,020).They did not find differences between the first-, second-, and third-largest groups with foreign-sounding names (0.403 vs. 0.388 vs. 0.383; Kruskal–Wallis Hχ = 2.52, P = 0.28, n = 11,462).

These results are illustrated in figure 2. It shows the response rate for native-sounding names (yellow bar) and foreign-sounding names (blue bar) for each country. The response rate clearly differed between countries. The Netherlands had the highest response rate (all = 69.4%, foreign = 64.5%, native = 74.3%), while Serbia had the lowest (all = 12.0%, foreign = 9.3%, native = 15.1%). Notice that for every country, the response rate was lower for foreign-sounding names.

Figure 2.

The authors show that response rates differ between countries. Ireland, France, and Portugal have the lowest differences (below 4%), whereas Croatia, Hungary, and Austria have the highest differences (above 20%). For most of the remaining countries, the response rate difference is between 5% and 13%.  Figure 3 ranks the difference in response rates between foreign-sounding and native-sounding names by country. The results are shown with a 95% confidence level bar.

Figure 3.


This incontrovertible evidence shows that it can be stated that those with what can be considered ethnic minority and immigrant sounding names do face a level of exclusion from amateur sports clubs and this is the result of discrimination against people on the basis of their ethnicity. The goals of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) the governing body of the sport in Europe, to have equal access to the game is clearly not being achieved.

The fact that even though the email from a person with non-indigenous name was still typical and representative of a proportion of the population is alarming. It means that discrimination may well be made against ethnic minorities in Europe, thus threatening the emerging multi-cultural nature of the countries examined. Just like those Europeans, whose ancestry has meant they are not discriminated against because of their names and background, ethnic minorities and immigrants will often support the same teams and be as committed to the beautiful game as everyone else. The desire to partake in football and equally integrate into their host society may be just as strong.

It is regrettable that association football, the most popular form of sporting entertainment on the globe, a veritable medium to bring people together and break down boundaries and promote inclusion, has been prevented from realising its full potential by the very problem that we would hope that it is addressing. Years after anti-racism campaigns such as ‘Kick It Out’ were deployed to tackle discrimination in the game it is clear that there is still much work to be done. And regrettably name discrimination is a real factor in society that may be cascading through many countries, limiting people’s opportunities, and engendering inequality.

We owe the authors and researchers a debt of gratitude for showing us this. Football and its legions of fans and society as a whole will benefit if discrimination can be ended.

Watch what needs to be done:

This topic will be discussed at ImpACT International’s webinar on Thursday 10th March 2022, 10.30am GMT (London time) 11.30am Central European Time.

This is based on a report Mapping discrimination in Europe through a field experiment in amateur sport by Dr Carlos Gómez González et al, University of Zurich. Carlos is an expert in sports economics, sports management, and discrimination studies.

For full Webinar on YouTube click HERE

Pilot study: What’s in a name? Measuring access to social activities with a field experiment
Paper: Mapping discrimination in Europe through a field experiment in amateur sport

 Full report here 🔻


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