‘We’re so much more than that’: Stormzy opens #MerkyFC HQ centre to tackle racial inequality in football jobs | Stormzy

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Stormzy has won three Brit awards, headlined Glastonbury, persuaded Usain Bolt and José Mourinho to star in a music video, and bought AFC Croydon Athletic with the former Crystal Palace player Wilfried Zaha.

His skills on the pitch, however, are not up to much. “I’m shit at football. I was never going to be a footballer,” he said. “But maybe if I knew how to be a pundit [I’d have gone down that road]. Maybe if I knew how to be a data analyst or all the intricate jobs behind the scenes that people might not know about.”

Britain’s biggest rapper’s new mission is to give people this information: to shine a spotlight on jobs in football off the pitch, and to address the racial inequality that plagues the industry.

To follow his #Merky music label and book imprint, he founded #Merky FC (the FC stands for football careers. Last week, he opened #MerkyFC HQ in Croydon, south London – a football pitch, recording studio and gaming centre built with help from Adidas. Young people from across London will be able to use it to take part in football and “explore creative passions in music, content creation and esports”, Adidas’s Steve Marks said.

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While 43% of Premier League players are black, the proportion of managerial and backroom staff is just 4.4%, according to a report last year from the Black Footballers Partnership (BFP), which warned that progress “had been glacial”.

Stormzy told the Observer that addressing this disparity was “the whole reason” for the venture.

“You’ll see black players but you might not see a black ref or a black commentator – all those other jobs away from the quote-unquote ‘talent’,” he said. “I’ve always thought, no, we’re so much more than that. If we had the avenues to become all those other things, I’m sure we’ll be able to do that.”

It’s about “encouraging youths”, Stormzy added. He said there was “a whole plethora of reasons” why black people had less success behind the scenes in the football industry. “I think people don’t have that information or knowledge or education and they don’t even see the in, they don’t see the route to get there.

“Even that route being invisible to people is a big thing. So I thought that if we can make these things more visible and actually get people the information, that’s part of [the solution].”

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Stormzy brought stars from the worlds of football, music and gaming to Croydon for the opening of #MerkyFC HQ. Photograph: adidas/Merky FC

The Football Association has created a Football Leadership Diversity Code to address the issue, but only 56 of the 92 football league clubs have signed up, and the BFP said that there were greater barriers to advancement in the lower leagues – a “glass ceiling”.

Only two black referees have ever officiated at Premier League games, and only two of the commentators used by ITV and the BBC during the Qatar World Cup in 2022 were black, although there was more diversity among pundits and co-commentators.

The new #MerkyFC HQ comes two years after it was founded. It has helped find training and placements for 60 young people so far at Fulham, Manchester United, Arsenal and the Scottish FA, as well as Sky Sports, ITV and other media, gaming and data companies.

In 2018, Stormzy, whose real name is Michael Omari Owuo Jr, launched the Stormzy Scholarship with the University of Cambridge, paying the tuition fees and a maintenance grant for two students a year. He did not initially plan to meet the students who received his grants.

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“I was adamant that I didn’t want to meet them in real life,” he said. “I didn’t want them to feel the pressure of meeting [me] – just let them breathe and do their own thing and not be in their face.

“But I was convinced – and rightfully so – to meet them. I think the scholarship showed me that it’s actually necessary. It’s not just these flippin’ diversity quotas and fancy buzzwords and all these things that feel very surface level – it’s real-life human beings at the end of this who are really getting a chance to show their potential.”

He is now meeting young people who have benefited from MerkyFC, too. “There was a kid who was one of the alumni from MerkyFC year one, and he had a placement at Versus [a football news site] and after his second year he got made permanent. So yesterday we saw him at the launch – and he was working to cover it for Versus. It was like a full-circle moment.

“There was loads of kids there. I go to Old Trafford for Man Utd games and some of them will be working on the day and come and say hello. There are loads of beautiful stories.

“In five years I hope that I’m seeing someone – maybe I’m doing something for Sky Sports, or a game at Old Trafford or I go to the Champions League final – and someone taps me on my shoulder and says, ‘I was year two of MerkyFC’.

“That’s all I want. Seeing the ripple effect – the domino effect – and for it to be a real thing, not just something that looks good and sounds good.”

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