On Christmas Eve, L’Equipe, the well-respected and long-established French sports news outlet, sensationally claimed that the success of Burnley FC this season was on the back of a discriminatory player recruitment policy.
In a profile of the high-flying Clarets, reporter Vincent Duluc said that the “surprise package” of the Premier League in 2017/18 are a “100% white team with with players with flattened noses and big ears”.
Duluc went on to say they are “coached by a ginger Englishman, in a city who voted 70% for Brexit and which has been the breeding ground of racial tensions”.
Burnley supporters were quick to take issue over the article, with fans on the uptheclarets.com website variously describing it as “disgraceful”, “shocking” and “activist hack nonsense”. One user asserted: “No credible person honestly believes we are building a squad based on racism.”
So why did L’Equipe suggest otherwise? When the piece was written, Burnley’s only black player was Daniel Agyei, who went out on loan to Walsall at the start of the season.
However, on the opening of the January transfer window, Ntumba Massanka, who was on loan at Wrexham for the first half of the campaign, returned to become the only black player in Dyche’s squad, making Duluc’s article slightly out of date.
However, his young age and lack of experience suggest that he will not be thrust straight into the starting XI.
Last season, Burnely had four black players on their books, two being those already mentioned and then most notably Andre Gray.
The striker, who departed for Watford for £18.5m before the start of the season, had previously spoken on social media about hearing Burnley fans racially abuse opposing players.
After a pre-season friendly at Bradford City, the Englishman tweeted: “Well done to the two racist Burnley fans. Still live in the stone ages I see! Ignorant prats,” in response to chants made by two supporters towards a Bradford player.
However, this came came just two months before the 26-year-old was found guilty of writing racist, sexist and homophobic tweets in 2012 while at Hinckley United and given a four-match ban by the FA, along with a £25,000 fine.
Of course, Gray pointing the finger at two Burnley fans can in no way be seen as evidence that racism among their supporters is widespread.
But what L’Equipe has done is link the whiteness of Burnley’s squad to public support for Brexit in the town, along with each of the other 13 districts of Lancashire.
In doing so, it conjures up the discriminatory aura which characterised the EU referendum, fuelled by the anti-immigration stance of prominent Leavers like UKIP’s Nigel Farage, epitomised by the infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster (pictured above).
This “breeding ground of racial tension”, as Duluc calls it, is not a new phenomenon. An article in The Independent dating back to 2001, tells a story of de facto segregation amongst the whites and Asians of Nelson, East Lancashire, which is just five miles from Burnley.
It reported that white parents wouldn’t send their children to Edge End and allow them to mix with the 70% Asian contingent at the local primary school, in what the article’s writer Ian Herbert called, “[the] home at the heart of the segregated, racially fragile land of north-west England”.
L’Equipe’s writer also mentions “ginger Englishman” Dyche, and even his record is not unblemished when it comes to its association with racial issues.
Back in 2014, the 46-year old called for Malkay Mackay to be allowed to “move on” after it was revealed that he exchanged sexist, racist and homophobic text messages while managing Cardiff City.
Whilst there is no suggestion that Dyche in any way sympathised with the Scot’s views, his call to allow his former colleague at Watford to get on with his career conflicted with the view of KickItOut, who were strongly against Mackay getting the job at Wigan at the time.
It should also be mentioned that L’Equipe is not without issues of its own when it comes to race. During the Euro 2016, the hashtag ‘#BoycottLequipe’ appeared on Twitter as people online claimed that the publication was unfairly criticising certain players.
One user demonstrated via previous covers that Paul Pogba, Nicolas Anelka, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema have all been subjected to scapegoating by the newspaper and that as a result, many refused to read the news outlet at the time.
Whilst a sports newspaper has rights to criticise anyone, the trend here is that two are black, and two more are of Algerian origin.
On the other hand, L’Equipe were seen to be treating Michel Platini almost “as a victim”, according to another user on Twitter, as he was being sentenced alongside former Fifa boss Sepp Blatter for a host of breaches including conflict of interest and dereliction of duty while serving as Uefa president during the Fifa corruption scandal.
Duluc’s claims about Burnley FC, the people of Burnley and also Dyche, are damaging, and in the case of the physical descriptions, a demonstration of ‘reverse racism’.
However, his argument is that the social and political context in which the club sits means its success this season risks being tainted by an issue that is from, in the words of Duluc, “another century”.