Arsenal Legend Sol Campbell On Banter, Growing Up & Racism

The ex-England footballer tells us what spurred him on to become one of the sought-after defenders on the planet...
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The ex-England footballer tells us what spurred him on to become one of the sought-after defenders on the planet...

Arsenal & Spurs Legend Sol Campbell On Banter, Growing Up & Racism

As a working class Londoner with an Irish-Arabic background, I have experienced casual and subtle racism, both in terms of my career, and also in social situations – would you say you have encountered racism in your life and/or career and, if so, what happened? 

The moments I can remember was when I was young in a working mens club near Lewisham and an old man, about 50 or 60, said a couple of things to me like the ‘n’ word – that was one of the first times I had experienced it, an older man racially abusing a young man. But in football terms up at Sunderland when Gary Bennett was playing for them – that was when it started getting bizarre. It was a case of you’re alright but he’s not, and no-one was saying it was wrong at Roker Park.

Another one was a Northampton Town in the League Cup. The whole stand went up and gave me racist abuse – there was one woman who looked smiley, embarrassed, as if to say 'I can’t believe this is happening to you'. I was 21/22 playing for Spurs in 1999. I was young.

Do you think racism in football and in life will ever be eradicated? 

[Thinks hard] No. I think racism will always be there. There might be enough good people to stop racists preventing black people from rising up and fulfilling their potential, and override it – but I think it will always be there.

Do you think your working class Afro-Caribbean background made you tougher person?

I think the environment you live in automatically makes you tougher, but then it’s down to you. There’s a lot of people from really rough backgrounds who are not as strong – I think the combination for me, with my family and how I was brought up, it was tough for me at home and tough on the streets as well, but it shapes you for sure. You’ve got to be tough, to be street smart. You’ve got to be tough to get out – but some people don’t get out.

Who were/are your black role models?

Most black players who were playing when I was starting out, as it was probably tougher for them when they started and the ones before them, but for me, no-one stood up for me, it feels like I’ve had everything thrown at me. People are embarrassed at talking about the abuse I’ve gone through, as they want to forget it happened, and how long it went on for without anyone trying to stop it.

I actually had to start the process to stop it. Certain organisations and hierarchies like the Football Association are actually quite embarrassed at not doing anything about the abuse I’ve gone through, and are embarrassed at me taking the initiative. It went on for far too long, it was too much.

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One thing I have to ask – I’ve seen and read a lot of interviews with you about the book, but no-one has picked up on the fact that in that tiny house with 12 brothers and sisters you actually shared a bed with your mother until you were 14. How do you think that shaped and influenced your later life?

I want space! [Emphatically] You want space. You want space. You want space. You want so much space. You don’t ever want to give it up - because it’s been denied you for so long. Take when I went to Lilleshall as a 14 year old. I loved the countryside, I loved having my own bed, my own wardrobe, my own corner – that simple thing was independence for me, the simple things that kids take for granted. It made me so happy and satisfied to have my own little corner in that dormitory with the rest of the lads, it was great. I was so satisfied.

It was tough going back home in the holidays - it was another three or four years before I was able to get some money together to buy my own house and get out.

I remember you scoring on your debut for Spurs v Chelsea in December 1992, and seeing an interview with a happy go lucky teenager - what happened to the young lad who scored that day?

I’ve still got banter, don’t worry about that! If I want to have a laugh I have a laugh, but obviously with time seriousness kicks in, life kicks in, a lot of things kick in. Someone else could have been through the same situations as me but could have come through it all looking at the world in an extremely negative way, not in a pleasing way. I’m still an optimist, I still look to the future. I think there’s always an opportunity to be true to yourself so I’ve still got that, but yes I went through a tough time.

For me I’ve waited for so long to open up, and now I can open up and be me – and I think I don’t have to hold back now. I’ve not regressed. I’ve opened up, and I think a lot of people are beginning to find that refreshing.

What would be your ideal job out of football?

I love design. I would love to be a big British fashion house, from clothes to hotels, to restaurants, to be part of a company that grows. That’s how all family businesses start, and then 15 years down the line they’re huge.

I like architecture. I like how things sit.  I like movement and space and they enhance your life. And how every time you use these things or look at them, they give you a lift, even if its pissing down with rain, they add something to your life. To design spaces for people, that’s what design should do. Enhance life, better lives, allow them to see something they haven’t seen before.

Space appears to be a defining theme in your life?

Yes. Space is important to me. Like if you’ve got a hotel and you want space for people who want to congregate and you’ve got to get it right, get the space right so people can enjoy it.

Space enhances your life. I really believe that.

Sol's autobiography is available to buy from Amazon now.

Layth is a freelance journalist who has written for The London Evening Standard, The Islington Gazette, Four-Four-Two, When Saturday Comes & World Soccer amongst many others.

Follow him on Twitter at @laythy29

Arsenal & Spurs Legend Sol Campbell On Banter, Growing Up & Racism