Newsmaker: England expects ... Piara Powar, Director, Kick It Out

John Plummer

While most England fans are praying for an end to their team's wretched 38-year silverware drought at Euro 2004, Piara Powar travelled to Portugal in the hope that another dismal national record will be banished.

Barely any major football tournament passes without incidents of drunken English knuckleheads brawling in the street. As director of Kick It Out, the anti-racism organisation that is currently applying for charitable status, and also as a non-white England fan, Powar is acutely aware that the tournament's success can be defined in more ways than one. "There have been times when I have had to turn a deaf ear to some of the chants being uttered," he says. "Some of the extreme nationalism is stomach-churning."

Perhaps unsurprisingly Powar, 38, describes himself as "not the biggest England fan" but adds "it would be wrong to give up supporting them because it would be like giving up on England".

Kick It Out is at the forefront of initiatives to combat prejudice in Portugal. The organisation, which is backed by the Professional Footballers' Association, the Football Foundation, the FA and the Premier League, was established in 1997. Most fans know it by its brand name 'Let's kick racism out of football'.

That many fans are familiar with the slogan is in itself a measure of success and a cause for national pride in an area that has previously brought so much shame. "There is no exact mirror organisation in any other country," he says.

Powar is also one of the key players in Football Against Racism in Europe, the continent-wide scheme that has launched the first international anti-racism hotline and multi-lingual fanzine.

Gestures and shop-a-thug hotlines are all very well, but they are unlikely to bring fans with prejudices as deep as their capacity for lager together in some loved-up Eurovision fantasy. Powar says people shouldn't expect them to. Fare and Kick It Out are primarily educational organisations and the first thing they teach is that everybody is responsible for booting out the bigots. "Knowing about us is the first step," he says. "A sense of ownership of the campaign is the second. If people walk away from a stadium thinking racism is our problem, then we wouldn't be moving forward."

Kick It Out employs six staff and survives on £500,000, a sum that would be boosted by charitable tax breaks. "It won't make a large difference because we don't fundraise from individuals, but to be able to approach charitable trusts would open up the scope of our fundraising activity," says Powar.

He says that the softening of Charity Commission guidelines on political activity prompted the organisation to apply. "As an anti-racist organisation we have been seen as political, but, over the years, the commission has realised that working for racial equality is a charitable rather than political cause," he says.

Although there are "points to be resolved", Powar says dealings with the commission are proceeding smoothly. Through its anti-racism community projects, Kick It Out works with charities, some of which it funds. Kick It Out also acts as a link between black and Asian communities and the 92 professional clubs. Most clubs, not to mention the FA, peddle a strong anti-racism message, but do not necessarily practise what they preach, which the near-absence of Asian players and non-white managers points to.

Showing a lack of deference to funders that isn't always apparent in the sector, Powar accuses the FA of "not always seeing the point" and urges it to make greater use of England players for anti-racism initiatives.

He suggests Keith Alexander, the black Lincoln City manager who guided his team to the Division Three play-offs six months after a blood vessel burst in his brain, would have been a more deserving winner than David Beckham for the sporting accolade at the recent Ethnic Multicultural Media Awards (Emmas).

His comment that picking Beckham was an insult to black people and ethnic minorities brought criticism. "It wasn't about Beckham; it was about the role of an awards ceremony like the Emmas," he explains. "For me, it's about nurturing talent in the ethnic minorities." Powar is used to the media spotlight: he received a Free Your Mind award at the MTV Awards in Barcelona for his work with Fare. Previous recipients include Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Bono.

Powar's prickly remarks don't always go down well but he operates in a very prickly environment. "I wouldn't say I was outspoken," he says. "It goes with the turf. Football is a national obsession and racism is a big issue in it."

As if following England were not trying enough, Powar grew up supporting Leeds United, a club not renowned for its enlightened approach to equity.

The 2001 court case, in which Leeds players Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate were cleared of causing grievous bodily harm to student Sarfraz Najeib, left such a sour taste that Powar relinquished his support.

"I didn't feel what the club said warranted my support," he says. Living in north London, he says, "it's difficult not to be swept away by Arsenal".

For the moment, Powar is allowing himself to be swept along by the England tide for Euro 2004. "We all want a safe and peaceful tournament," he says.

A bland statement, but one that by the end of past tournaments involving England would have sounded pretty hollow.


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