Best of Africa 2015 award winner and former striker Louis Saha speaks exclusively to Michael McCann for the Morning Star on the fight against racism
LOUIS SAHA took time out of celebrating at the recent Best of Africa (BOA) 2015 awards to explain why he views England as a leader in the fight against racism.
He certainly had plenty to celebrate, personally and more widely.
Saha won the outstanding achievement in business award for his post-career project Axis Stars, as contributions made by footballers from across Africa were rightly heralded.
However, Saha wants to address the broader picture, including inequality around the world.
The 37-year-old spent 2000 to 2013 playing in England — at Newcastle, Fulham, Manchester United, Everton, Tottenham and Sunderland — but also has vast experience playing elsewhere.
Saha started his career in France at the reputable Clairefontaine academy then went to Metz and ended it in Italy with Lazio. He also earned 20 caps for the French national team and played 47 European club matches during his career in both the Champions and Europa leagues.
The Frenchman said he sees England as pushing for equality within football.
“England is probably an example as a leader in equality — they have done really well on many topics around everything, as well as the actual entertainment of football in the Premier League.
“The quality of the players, pitches, stadiums and security, going into a stadium and feeling like you can go into a match with your son and family — nowhere else apart from Germany can compete with that.”
Although given the astronomical ticket prices in the Premier League, leading to the Twenty’s Plenty campaign by the Football Supporters’ Federation that seeks a £20 cap on away tickets, there are many who might argue that it is actually getting harder to take a family to top-level football.
The cheapest season ticket at Arsenal is now £1,014 and though that includes seven cup matches it effectively forces fans to buy a ticket for a match they might wish to miss.
Premier League fans pay four times as much as their German counterparts, with the Bundesliga CEO claiming English ticket prices would be met with “a shitstorm” that “would not be accepted.”
While some also consider rude chants by English fans as problematic, Saha believes that such issues regarding discrimination are more prevalent elsewhere.
“England is a great example of fighting discrimination and trying to bring forward topics like homophobia and racism into discussion, compared to Spain and Italy for example, where there is a lot more to be done.
“It is a leader in the world of football and sport as well, because football is the most popular sport you can find on earth, so I am very pleased and lucky to have played in England.”
Saha first moved to England in 2000, joining Fulham for £2.1 million from Metz and he had an immediate effect, scoring 27 goals to fire the Cottagers into the top flight as champions, before being named Premier League player of the month in August 2001.
That month included goals against Chelsea and Manchester United, who became his next employers when Saha joined the Red Devils for £12.4m in January 2004, after scoring 13 Premier League goals in just 21 games for Fulham in that season.
The striker reached 20 for the campaign by scoring another seven across 12 appearances with his new club, in what proved to be his mos personally successful season in a first division.
Saha ultimately notched up 42 goals in 124 appearances across five successful seasons, which included winning the 2005-6 League Cup consecutive Premier League titles in 2006-7 and 2007-8 — when United also claimed the Champions League.
He said that throughout he was fortunate to not experience any racism directly, with his only such incident coming in France when playing for Metz.
“The change since I started playing has been huge, racism has decreased in some ways but there is a long way to go.
“I was really lucky that the only time I really experienced something bad was when I went to the Parc de Princes in Paris Saint Germain, where one of the stands was forbidden for black people, which was really bad.
“That was in 1999 but only a few years ago they were forced to stop that which is an evolution.”
Though Saha says the fight against racism has progressed in recent decades, he emphasises that community work is essential to bringing about change.
The former star says such work is already going on and is the primary way of forcing governing bodies to act.
“I am very pleased with the amount of charity work that has been done on the community side because fighting discrimination starts in the communities.
“This is putting pressure on organisations to make sure people positive work is highlighted — that is very important.”
There are still few black and minority ethnic (BME) managers and coaches in football, with a recent Loughborough University report by Dr Stephen Bradbury finding that there were just 23 BME people in senior coaching positions out of 552.
That has since been reduced by two after the recent sackings of Chris Powell and Chris Ramsey from Huddersfield Town and QPR respectively, leaving just four BME first-team managers in the top four divisions.
This means that while BME people make up 14 per cent of the British population, they account for less than 4 per cent.
Saha firmly believes that making top-quality coach training available to all will improve matters.
“I just want everyone to be capable of being judged by only their talent, because it’s a way of discrimination again.
“There are things that can be done but I don’t want it to be forced — it is not because I am black that I should get the job, you have to be careful about quality, which is important.
“It’s about coach education over quotas, making sure the quality is there, more testing, we want them to be representing their community and group in the best way possible.
“It’s not about putting someone there just to fill a number. This is wrong. The best way to find a solution is that everyone brings ideas, give their opinions and allow us to make the best choice.”
Meaning that it often comes down to who you know, not what you know.
Ex-player Michael Johnson completed all his coaching qualifications yet spent four years seeking employment before being made Cardiff City U21 assistant manager in August 2015, which shows the barriers some face.
Saha is now occupied by post-career project Axis Stars, which helps professional athletes and sports star adjust to life after retirement from playing.
Over half of professional athletes were recently found to have filed for bankruptcy within five years of retirement, with poor financial choices and a lack of financial education all factors in this, making Axis Stars a valuable resource for players.
Didier Drogba, Gaizka Mendieta, Phil Neville and Florent Malouda are among the former players on board with the project, which helps players find reputable advisers.
Saha was understandably delighted to collect his award for his work with Axis Stars and attend the BOA’s evening which celebrated the contributions of African players to both sport and charitable causes.
“To get my award was great I have to admit. At the same time to just see how many nice people are here, you can see the amount of work that has been achieved over the years.
“It is a great evening well-organised and good in highlighting everything positive that is going on in Africa.”