For Senegal, their hopes of making it through the World Cup ended Thursday in a rare and questionable fashion.
Senegal and Japan ended up tied in a series of categories, and for the first time in the history of the World Cup the result came down to FIFA’s “Fair Play Conduct Points”, which accounted for yellow card fouls given by referees during the group stage games.
1. Colombia (2-0-1, 6 points)
2. Japan (1-1-1, 4 points), (-4 “fair play points” for 4 yellow cards.)
3. Senegal (1-1-1, 4 points), (-6 “fair play points” for 6 yellow cards.)
Specifically, there is good reason to believe that individual Senegalese players are significantly more likely to receive carded fouls compared to their Japanese counterparts because of differences in how players of different races are refereed.
There is plenty of scientific data on the prevalence of racial discrimination in sports. Maybe most relevant here is the 2013 report entitled “A Statistical Study of Racism in English Football”.
Researchers at the University of Manchester analyzed player data collected from two hundred and ninety players and seventeen teams to determine the number of fouls, yellow cards, and red cards given to players of different ethnicities both by English and non-English referees. The study was conducted in the English Premier League from 2011-2012.
The writers acknowledge that this result is significant, however they also say that there could be deeper factors than racial discrimination influencing the results of the data.
What if the differences in cards account for differences in aggressiveness or style of play between different groups?
It turns out that this hypothesis has also been well researched:
In 2013, a substantial research study found that non-White players in the EPL were 15% more likely to receive a booking than a White player, after controlling for player, team, referee and match characteristics.
They analyzed over one million in-match events, and “perhaps most importantly found that between White and non-White players, aggressiveness and style of play was not found to be statistically different”.
This is a multi-layered issue, from the implementation of rules, to the representation of populations, to the underlying assumptions and narratives that permeate the culture of football.
The forms of discrimination from the referees is consistent with the types of representation seen at the management level; only two Black individuals occupy management spots across all of the ninety two teams in the Football League (Cashmore and Cleland 2011).
It doesn’t end here. A study entitled “Racism in Soccer?” found evidence that suggested Black individuals were thought to be more aggressive and associated more with threats compared to White counterparts.
One explanation of this was down to the fact that Black individuals were often viewed as more athletic and thus perceived to be more aggressive.
Look no further for evidence of the underlying culture around these issues than Sunday before Senegal and Japan drew 2-2 to get them into this situation.
Japan’s coach Akira Nishino said that “[Against Senegal] rather than physicality, we have to use our brain to come up with some tactics and strategies”, reasserting this common narrative among commentators, pundits, and now coaches.
By having the rules dictate that certain tiebreakers will be decided by “Fair Play Conduct Rules”, FIFA has built these dynamics into the structure of the tournament, increasing the weight of their significance and allowing for the types of situations we’re seeing now.
It could very well be that this tie breaking mechanism, ironically called “fair play”, allowed a deeply unfair system to make the difference between elimination and continuation for Senegal and the continent of Africa at large.