The world’s most popular sport can bring the best out of people, and the worst.

Racism exists both on and off the soccer field, notes former England international Paul Elliott CBE, 50, now a leading antiracism campaigner, who was in Israel last week as a guest of the New Israel Fund.

“Football reflects society,” he told Haaretz after watching Hapoel Kiryat Shmona win the State Cup on Wednesday evening. “Last night an Arab player scored the winning goal, yet nobody even mentioned his ethnicity. That surely is a positive sign.”

Before the game, 300 young Jewish and Arab players linked hands around the field in a demonstration of cross-ethnic solidarity. The following day, those same youngsters – from the Bedouin town Hura, Ma’aleh Adumim and Kedumim in the West Bank, Netanya, Taibeh, Rosh Ha’ayin, Sakhnin and Tirat Hacarmel – played a tournament in the Arab-Israeli town of Taibeh, as part of the New Israel Fund’s Kick Violence and Racism out of Soccer campaign, now in its 10th year..

Elliott also held a training camp for teenagers from the Shoafat refugee camp, hosted by Jerusalem’s Hapoel Katamon.

For the past two decades, Elliott has crisscrossed Europe, meeting with youngsters, players and club administrators, as a representative of the Kick It Out antiracism campaign, and latterly as an official emissary for UEFA, the sport's governing body in Europe.

Unusually eloquent for a soccer player and fluent in French and Italian, he is well suited to his role, having taken his own share of abuse as a player.

An imposing defender renowned for his calm temperament, Elliott started his career with Charlton Athletic in the early 1980s before playing for First Division Luton Town, Aston Villa, Italian club Pisa, Scotland’s Glasgow Celtic and Chelsea. His career was curtailed, however, after he sustained a serious knee injury, and ended exactly 20 years ago this weekend.

Since then, he has devoted his life to his calling. “It’s about leaving your mark in society," he said, "and there’s nothing like football to embrace everything that’s wrong with society. I’m not here to tell a negative story − I’m here to talk about a challenging situation and the role that football can play in improving it.”

In 2003, Elliott was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his work with young players and involvement with antiracism initiatives in soccer. He received the title Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) at Buckingham Palace in 2012 for services to equality and diversity in soccer.

It has been a long, hard road for him.

“When I started out as a player in the 1970s there were some teams like Blackburn Rovers who wouldn’t sign a black player. My parents came to the UK from Jamaica with nothing,” he said. “I was lucky − this is my blessing and legacy.

“I was from the first generation of black players in English football,” he recounted. “There were some real challenges back then: Discrimination was a big problem in society, and I wasn’t prepared for what was to come − the swearing, the monkey chants.

“Football reflects society. The right-wing, racist BNP [British National Party] was strongly present in the stadiums. Some parts of London had high levels of confrontation, which also applied to football stadiums. It was difficult to be a black player in those days – especially in the north of England, in places like Leeds, Stoke or Burnley. It was very challenging in my early days. Football society was tough − it was an ugly time. I suffered from racism already at Charlton.”

Yet Elliott ultimately turned this situation to his advantage.

“I developed the necessary skill sets to be mentally strong and not show weakness. I used it as a motivation − adversity breeds character. Opposing players regularly picked on me because they thought it would affect my game. My teammates couldn’t understand what I had to endure − after all, most of them were white.”

Almost inevitably, the day came when he snapped: “I lost my head during a game and punched a player who called me ‘black bastard’ when I had the ball. I was shown a red card and my team lost the game as a result. But my manager was forgiving. I was only 17 − still a baby in life. I was physically big and strong, but not mentally mature. He realized that I was a boy in a man’s world. I had to have thick skin.

“That was the turning point for me. I realized that I was destined to do what I do to this day. I had a Jewish coach in David Pleat at Luton, who helped me tremendously.”

Sending a message

In 1990, Elliott was appointed the first black captain in English soccer by Chelsea’s coach Ian Porterfield and chairman Ken Bates. “It was a huge honor for me − one of my greatest achievements as a player. It was also tremendously symbolic. Chelsea had previously been known as a right-wing club, with neo-Nazis among its supporters. It signified a change in social attitudes and sent a strong message to society.”

The game has evolved since then. “The rebranding of the Premier League [which replaced the old First Division in 1991] made the difference. Football stadiums are far more inclusive now − there are more women and children, and greater social diversity. The Premier League is a global brand, broadcast in 212 countries and with a worldwide audience numbering about 500 million people every week. The game is such a powerful tool for engagement, to unite people, to break down the barriers.”

In the wake of the lifetime ban recently handed down to NBA Los Angeles Clippers franchise owner Donald Sterling following the publication of his racist remarks, Elliott's trip to Israel was particularly opportune.

We were joined by veteran Arab Israeli sports commentator and journalist Zouheir Bahloul − a member of the New Israel Fund’s International Council, and Ethiopian-born, former Israeli international Baruch Deg,  both of whom have experienced racism firsthand.

“I know all about the monkey chants,” Dego told Elliott via an interpreter. “When I was an 18-year-old at Maccabi Tel Aviv, the fans picked on me, ostensibly because I replaced their beloved star, Avi Nimni. They jumped on the fact that I have dark skin. I suffered from racism.

“In recent years there have been antiracism projects in Israel, and the situation has improved. After all, soccer brings people of all colors together. Nowadays I often address schoolchildren and tell them what I went through − I took it hard, but ultimately it encouraged me to work harder. I was the barometer,” he added.

Dego arrived in Israel at age 7, and grew up in a squalid Ashkelon neighborhood. “I always dreamed of being a soccer player. The game saved my life − but it was tough psychologically. Nowadays it’s easier for Ethiopian immigrant players.”

“That’s because you had no role model,” said Elliott.

“I remember one of my teammates used to call me kushi [a derogatory term for black people],” Dego recounted.

“Did your coach help you?” Elliott asked.

“Yes. He threw the player off the team.”

“That’s a good sign,” the Englishman said.

“Now there are far more Ethiopian − and Arab − players in the Israeli league, but there’s still much that needs improvement,” Dego continued. “Racism is still there among the fans, although not so much among the players. It won’t disappear so quickly. I want to write a book about my experiences.”

“What you have done is very important for the next generation of players,” Elliott told him.

Breaking through the glass ceiling

“In Israel Jews and Arabs play together, but that is not reflected outside the stadium in daily life,” Bahloul pointed out.

“This is ultimately the biggest challenge,” Elliott responded. “Football is not responsible for society’s ills, but it can play an important role in changing society. Because of its popularity, it provides a great example of how these issues can be addressed. If football shows a good example, it can be a catalyst for change.”

“One in every five Israeli Premier League players nowadays are Arabs − but there are no Arab coaches,” Bahloul noted.

“Here we’re talking about the transparency of recruitment policies − these are subtle issues,” Elliott replied. “They don’t want you there. It’s about meritocracy, about the quality of opportunity − at all levels of the game. There are still many challenges, but there’s been great progress. Racism is still a problem in football everywhere. Today 32 percent of British players are black, but there are no black team managers. [There were two until recently − Paul Ince, Chris Hughton − but both got sacked.] We need more black coaches and administrators, to break through the glass ceiling. The structure has improved over last seven or eight years, but we still need to do much more.”

Elliott was keen to point out parallels between England and Israel. “We have very similar challenges,” he explained. “Attitudes have improved, and there’s far more diversity nowadays. When I sit on a board, black people know I can relate to their issues. But still many black players lose heart. They lose their enthusiasm and motivation because they are aware of this limitation. I tell kids to have ambition. The challenge is to keep going: Get educated, build trust.

“I call on players to speak up and not be afraid. Would you put up with discrimination in your workplace? Footballers should not be afraid. Everyone has the right to work in a racism-free environment.

“I am internationally focussed. In England we have made great progress, but there is still much to do. Leadership is crucial and the English Football Association and UEFA have shown leadership. The Israel Football Association cannot solve this [problem] alone. It’s about international collaboration. You and I know that’s not the situation everywhere, but it’s easier to love than to hate. Every one of the seven billion people in the world were born without discrimination. Hate is love turned inside out.

“Racism exists subliminally; you can’t deny or ignore that. Education is the key − starting from home − to rectify this: home, school, sport, in that order. Football is important because of its global appeal. It’s win-win all round.

“In England the big issue now is homophobia. Homophobia is the 21st-century challenge. Many gay players are scared to come out. If someone like Wayne Rooney would declare he’s gay, people will say ‘so what?’ because he’s a leading player. It needs someone of that status to make the difference.”

The Israeli realty

“Coming here has been a fabulous education for me,” said Elliott. “There was only one race on the field last night: the human race. That an Arab scored the winning goal and nobody mentioned that − that was the message. That’s the best thing for this country.”

“I had some difficult experiences in Italy in Scotland. The political complexity in Israel reminds me of when I played in Scotland, where you were Catholic or Protestant, Irish- or English-affiliated. I had a hard time as someone nominally Protestant playing for a Catholic club. I couldn’t change 100 years of Scottish history.”

Indeed, Elliott is anything but naïve. “I know that the subliminal reality is different,” he said. “Politics runs under everything, everywhere in the world. It’s about the message − supporters and the media talking positively about an Arab player who won the cup for Kiryat Shmona.”

Then again, there is one team in the Israeli Premier League that has never signed an Arab player: Beitar Jerusalem.

“I accept this reality − but look how it was in the past and look at it as it is now. Don’t tell me there hasn’t been progress,” said Elliott.

“Would such a team be ejected from the league in England?” Bahloul wondered.

“In England the league would say this is contemptible, and the team would have been punished. They would implement antiracism laws. For the team itself this would have been a classic own-goal. They may think it’s a short-term gain that appeases their fans, but it’s a long-term loss. What’s the future of this club? What about the next generation of supporters? That’s more important for the sustainability of the club. This kind of mentality is not sustainable in the long run.”

Elliott cited the example of one country that's been known for racism among its soccer fans: Ukraine.

“Dynamo Kiev now has several black players − who would have expected that seven or eight years ago? They’ve realized that the brand of the club cannot stay limited. Football is a commercial business, and owners want the best sponsors and investors – and this will come only if the club’s image is right. The image has to reflect society. Football can change that. After all, diversity is an intrinsic part of business.”

"Racism," Elliott said, "exists subliminally; you can’t deny or ignore that. Education is the key − starting from home − to rectify this: home, school, sport, in that order. The best message is that an Arab scored the winning goal last night − that contributes to breaking down the barriers. We must not be selective.”