In this article, FBIN had the opportunity to chat with the HR and Inclusion Director of the Royal Belgian Football Association, Sylvie Marissal, to discuss their action plan “Come Together” and the issue of discrimination and racism in Belgian football.
By Quang T. Pham
What does your current role as the HR & Inclusion Director entail?
I’ve been at the RFBA for three years, transforming HR from admin to employee-centered. We prioritize well-being, involvement, clear roles, and progress tracking. We have made changes, both big and small, to make this possible. For instance, we moved to a new headquarters that better supports employee happiness. Inclusion is also our priority. We built a diverse team with complementarity, not quotas. Our high-performing team comprises different nationalities and ages, with almost 35% women in our federation.
HR and Inclusion Director
Royal Belgian Football Association
How did the “Come Together” action plan come about?
We have been actively involved in fighting racism and discrimination in football. Two years ago, we launched an official initiative called “Come Together” to address the issue. We consulted with experts and universities and set up a committee to address incidents with appropriate sanctions. Sanctions are given based on the severity of the offense. We also collaborated with partners to develop alternative measures, providing education to combat racism and discrimination. These measures will have a long-term impact on individuals and their communities; at least, that’s our profound belief.
How do you evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of “Come Together”?
“Come Together” is centered around building expertise and listening to both experts and those who are directly affected by discrimination. It’s about giving back to society and playing our role in representing all differences, not just one group. We want to be a mirror of society, not just in our employees, but also in the message we convey to clubs and individuals. Another important aspect is the measurement, as it helps us understand the impact of discrimination and how to address it. We’ve seen an increase in reports of discrimination in Belgium, particularly racism, with over 500 cases reported this year and twice as many as the previous year. We believe that all forms of discrimination are important and deserve attention, and we hope to address them through the “Come Together” initiative. Body shaming, for example, is an important issue for children that we want to address. In short, our action plan is based on six key pillars: Listening, Representation, Training, Measuring, and Communicating (Find out more here).
In your new video campaign, why was the metaphor of a tattoo used to emphasize the impact of racism & discrimination?
We used the tattoo metaphor to emphasize that every incident of racism, homophobia, and sexism leaves a permanent mark on a person. Each incident will have impacts not only on the victim but also on bystanders, including children, adults, coaches, and anyone else who witnesses it. The campaign encourages everyone to speak out against discrimination, whether directly to the person or through Come Together. Let’s build a better community together and not remain silent in the face of discrimination. That’s the key message we want to pass around.
Can you tell us more about how you brought on board the four founding partners of Come Together and what each partner’s specific role is in the initiative?
ACFF and Voetbal Vlaanderen (VV) are responsible for organizing amateur and non-national teams in the French-and-Dutch-speaking regions of Belgium. We work closely with them and involve them from the beginning of Come Together, having our team members work in both wings on the football social responsibility topics. By working as one united team, we can make a greater impact in football. We believe in the power of one plus one equals three – we need each other to make it bigger, have one voice, and make it clear to everyone in football. The Pro League is a separate company covering division one and division two in our country and was already involved in many programs. While they have actively supported us from the front line, they were also busy with their own plans. Over the past year, we’ve been working to align ourselves with the Pro League to create one big football family. When we come together, one plus one today is four. It’s the power of unity that football represents, and together we are tackling all the challenges we face in Belgian football.
What led to the selection of Nathalie de Volder and Cristiano Ferri as campaign ambassadors?
Nathalie de Volder and Cristiano Ferri were chosen as campaign ambassadors because they have experienced discrimination firsthand and have gone through the whole process of reporting it to our committee. They have seen the impact of discrimination and were enthusiastic about playing a role in promoting change. It was easy for us to select them because they know what it takes to report discrimination, including what went well and what can be improved. When brainstorming for campaign ambassadors, we knew that we wanted individuals who had been through the process and could share their stories clearly without fear. It’s important to have people who can clearly explain their stories and are not afraid to speak up, and that’s exactly what they bring to the table.
What is the biggest challenge in tackling discrimination and racism in Belgian football?
It’s a complex issue, and I think the biggest challenge is that the whole football ecosystem is culturally based on a lot of emotions. Emotions run high in football, and it can lead to behaviors and attitudes that are not acceptable in other areas of life. We have to recognize this and approach it in a different way. We cannot just accept it as normal; we have to explain why it’s not acceptable and take action to change it. This involves being willing to make tough decisions and impose sanctions when necessary to send a strong message.
What are the big next steps for “Come Together”?
Our next steps for the “Come Together” campaign are to scale up and be more proactive, especially in terms of providing answers and support to people who report discrimination. For example, we are currently communicating about different topics each month, such as LGBTQ+ inclusion in May and girls in football in September, and working with football communities to increase participation in these areas. We are also collaborating with supporters groups to reflect on how we can improve the campaign with their input. As we continue to receive reports of discrimination, we will need to continually evaluate and reinforce our alternative measures and share best practices with others. The campaign is moving fast, and we are constantly planning and adapting to new challenges.