By Emeh Benjamin
I am a Nigerian in my late thirties, studying at a prominent university in Malaysia. Like many locals in Malaysia, I am passionate about football.
When I am not studying, I like to play futsal with the local lads to keep fit. It gives me a chance to mix with the locals and helps me learn about local cultures and traditions. Indeed, this rich diversity of cultures is a unifying blessing to the nation.
It wasn’t easy for me at first to get into the futsal circle, though. In the beginning, the guys would not pick me for their teams because of the colour of my skin – not because my skills were lacking.
But one day, they noticed me playing with my fellow Africans. When the local guys realised I could not only play well in midfield but defend capably as well, they began including me in their teams.
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One of my ethnic Malay friends, Azmin, looked up the names of well-known African footballers and now calls me Mikel John Obi, after the Nigerian star, just because I am from Africa.
After our games, we all go for jalan-jalan (take to the streets) and savour Malay food like nasi lemak, nasi goreng (fried rice) and satay, because I love to eat Malaysian food. Similarly, my local friends love Nigerian jellof rice, pepper soup with rice, okra soup and egusi soup with pounded yam, which they tried at an African restaurant in Kepong.
I feel more welcome now, but I still recall how I was not selected at first. Sadly, discrimination and even racism exist in Malaysian football, like in many other countries.
One such episode involved a Nigerian professional footballer playing as forward for Selangor. He was involved in a Caring Cup match in 2021, when opposing fans hurled racist chants at him.
Such derogatory chants violate footballing norms – and this is something the world governing body Fifa is against. Clubs could be fined or sanctioned for failing to control their fans.
In 2019 a German player, Antonio Timothy, left Malaysia because of racial abuse. He said he was booed during matches and even received racist messages on Instagram regarding his skin colour.
Following other incidents, a top Football Association of Malaysia official reacted in 2020: “We are in the age of professional football where we have professional coaches and players in our league and they are picked based on their abilities, not because of other factors like race. Malaysia is a multi-racial country, and we have players from different races even in the national team, so I really think these racial abuses should stop.”
My friend Azmin once asked me if I had experienced racism in Malaysia.
“Yes,” I replied, “when a landlord refused to rent his apartment to me because I am from Nigeria.”
I encountered similar situations in many other places. Sometimes I noticed unfriendly looks or people frowning when I asked for directions. At other times, the prices I was charged, especially in restaurants, seemed higher than what locals or others who speak Malay well had to pay. This prompted me to learn the Malay language!
The mass stereotyping of Nigerians is disappointing considering that many Nigerian scholars, experts and students in Malaysia are doing wonderful work in various fields and departments.
Racism happens at all levels of society, and sports like football have not been spared.
An ethnic Indian friend told me that even as a Malaysian, he had faced racism in football. But he refused to elaborate for reasons best known to himself.
In some parts of Europe as well, blacks and other Asian minority players are often targets of derogatory or vulgar language.
Here in Malaysia, a report was lodged against a teacher who allegedly coaxed a Form Three student to convert to Islam to boost the student’s chances of becoming a national footballer. Many condemned the teacher’s action, saying it would cause disunity and disharmony in peaceful Malaysia.
Despite such incidents, the game of football can be used to raise awareness of the ills of racism.
For example, after the murder of George Floyd in the US, footballers in top US clubs started “taking the knee” to express their abhorrence of racism. This gesture soon spread to other parts of the world.
While social media coverage of football has made racist events more visible, it has also helped in efforts to counter racism.
Many activists now use social media in the fight for racial justice by exposing racial discrimination. Social media has also contributed to the formation of a variety of communities against racism.
Activists and the authorities alike can use social media to educate people about diversity in society and the proper means to advocate for such diversity, so that the fight against racial discrimination can progress.
Footballers are unofficial ambassadors of any nation, and football has been the most popular sport in Malaysia.
I pray that one day Malaysia will be able to host high-profile international sporting events, such as the Olympics and the football World Cup. These events could promote Malaysia’s rich cultural heritage to the world and educate so many fans about unity in diversity.
But before that, more stringent laws against racist chants and abuse would have to be enacted.
Football clubs and organisations in Malaysia should do more to nip any discrimination and racism within their ranks. They could apply some notable strategies in the developed world to stop racism in football.
In a multi-racial country like Malaysia, what is important is respect for one another. Racism, whether in society or in sports, is a dangerous disease.
We cannot say we love football if we close an eye to the racist behaviour and language that still exists among some fans. Campaigns should be held to get people to commit and dedicate themselves to anti-racism efforts.
Malaysian football should set up an organisation or committee that would educate fans not only to shun derogatory language but also to guide them on healthy supportive strategies that could motivate their teams and players.
Laws should be enacted to prosecute racial abuse offenders and to ban them from stadiums. Tech companies could develop ways to prevent racist content from appearing on their apps or platforms.
Let love and unity lead us on the pitch.
Emeh Benjamin is a postgraduate student in international relations and strategic studies at the University of Malaya. His research interests include football diplomacy, unity and peace, and nation-building.
He wrote this piece at a writers’ workshop, “Writing for Change”, organised by the Department of International and Strategic Studies of the University of Malaya, the university’s International Relations Society, and Aliran