Racism in Soccer

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English soccer player John Terry resigned from further international matches this week. His retirement came amidst a hailstorm of controversy stemming from a well-publicised racial incident involving fellow Briton Anton Ferdinand in 2011. In his resignation statement, Terry announced that the Football Association had made the situation “untenable.” This is just one of the increasing number of occurrences of racism in soccer, highlighting the need for strong action against this unacceptable behaviour. 

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As Euro 2012 wound down, very little about the sport had changed; fans still loved soccer, and players were still diving. Spain remained the untouchable champions and kings of football; and the other elite nations—chiefly Germany and Portugal—had fallen in nicely as well. Of course, merciless England blundered another round of penalties, and returned home to their tea and crumpets prematurely.  Unchanged was the brooding and ugly presence of racism in Eastern European soccer stadiums.

Realistically, to continually refer to soccer in its current state as ‘the beautiful game’ is to be willfully or woefully naïve. The days of the beautiful game are gone. Those inspiring pictures and videos of impoverished but united youth, kicking paper balls across compact sand pitches have been buried under a mounting list of scandals and hateful chants. Contrasting the superficial on-field failures like flopping, laziness, and contrived showboating—which merely cause the raising of a cynical eyebrow—the sweeping pandemic of racism damages soccer’s greatest asset: its ubiquitous worldwide appeal. It all but obliterates FIFA’s famous, but misleading mantra “My game is fair play.”

Quite simply, today’s fans neither live in the beautiful age of soccer nor relish its golden aura. Instead, soccer faces a legitimate threat to its global popularity and relevance—a threat made worse by the egregious shortcomings of its two principal governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA. FIFA seems far more concerned with threatening Canadian Olympians who disagree with suspect officiating, than with defending basic human rights by enforcing racism-free stadiums. It would appear a complete rethinking of the timeless sport is in order by fans, players and organising officials wishing to restore the game’s global pull.

When Poland and Ukraine were awarded the honour of hosting the 14th edition of the European Championships in mid-2007, many were skeptical of their capabilities to saddle the momentous cost such an international event demands.  The doubt seemed well-founded: both are former Soviet-bloc states in different stages of social and economic development, and are the first of their kind to host the quadrennial tournament. After analyzing the figures, reported preparation costs soared to over $39 billion across the two nations and amassed a debt of $8 billion in Ukraine alone.

[pullquote]With increasing amounts of bigotry across the entire spectrum that is football, one must remember that soccer is the chosen ambassador of globalism in sport and that racism affects not only those subjected to it, but the entire two billion fans worldwide who long for a prejudice-free medium.[/pullquote]

Yet, there is some benefit in allowing nations to host events like the Euro if they believe they have the capacity to afford it—inasmuch as they will not require long-term bailouts (think of the Big “Owe” here in Montreal). It is in the spirit of international events to enhance global awareness and equality, and instills national pride and wonderment. However it is up to these nations to operate under the umbrella of fair play and social justice. It is here that not enough scrutiny was placed.  Nobody, much less the UEFA, seemed to be paying any attention to the increasing incidences of racism in that region since the early 90s, both related and unrelated to soccer.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, most countries in the Eastern Bloc have seen a steady increase in ethnic tension as they struggle to forge identities following years of social oppression.  The war in Yugoslavia at the conclusion of the 20th century provides a strong example of how deeply and fundamentally this feeling is rooted.

To put this specific European Championships’ region into perspective, an internal 2010 Ukrainian poll conducted by the Kuras Institute highlighted that 70 per cent of Ukrainians exhibited xenophobic behaviour and described ethnic outsider influence as disagreeable.  In Poland, the European Values Survey revealed similarly disheartening numbers, despite an initial levelling out following Poland’s entrance into the European Union.  Meanwhile, in Russia—the host of the 2018 World Cup—over 3,700 racially fuelled, violent attacks causing death or injury occurred between 2004 and 2011.  Most disturbingly, however, is that all sources point to a high level of governmental ambivalence, which breeds this sort of behaviour.

But what does this all have to do with soccer? On the surface, nothing—as bigotry and intolerance are omnipresent cultural issues that affect every aspect of society, and can be separated from sport. However a hard line cannot be etched between sport and society. In fact, an 18-month bigotry exposé of the host nations, undertaken by the Warsaw anti-racism group ‘Never Again,’ found numerous instances of racism classified as “giving rise to concern” leading up to the games. Most abashedly, the study highlighted an incident in a 2011 Polish match where a massive anti-Semitic poster was put on display for most of the contest without any police or security groups intervening.  The inquiry gave credence to 195 individual events occurring in each of the two countries before “Never Again” closed its study in mid-2011.

Racist soccer fans in Italy. (yfrog.com)
Racist soccer fans in Italy. (yfrog.com)

The build-up to the tournament was again sensationalist in bigoted misfeasance from its infancy. The BBC visited the region just prior to the opening match to comment on the progress of the grounds, but was instead shocked to discover the prevalence of anti-Jewish and anti-African chants that swept through the stadiums and post-match events. These chants were so widespread that British soccer officials recommended that families of black athletes on the English team remain at home, safe from persecution in the stadiums.

Mario Balotelli, an up-and-coming Italian star, threatened “to kill” anyone found throwing a banana at him and to “walk off the pitch at the first sign of trouble.” Although his sentiments were about as tactful as a bull in a china shop, they offer insight into the fear and resentment of many promising players towards racism in the sport specifically when it came to Euro 2012.

[pullquote]Open your ears. If you did hear it and don’t want to hear it, that is even worse. — Dutch Manager Mark van Bommel[/pullquote]

The actual event itself served to solidify pre-tournament trepidation and highlighted UEFA’s inadequate stance on racism.  When the Dutch national team arrived for their first training session before the event, they were met with malicious singing from Polish spectators, leaving captain Mark van Bommel crestfallen. In an interview with the BBC, van Bommel said “Open your ears. If you did hear it and don’t want to hear it, that is even worse.” UEFA, who had cameras at the event, cited no offence and chose not to respond the incident.

Eventually, UEFA would fine three nations “for improper behaviour of [their] fans… racist behaviour and racist chanting.” First, Croatia was dinged with a fine of €80,000 for verbal assaults on the frightened Balotelli, €40,000 of which were actually for setting off fireworks in the stands. Russia and Spain were quickly slapped with additional €30,000 and €20,000 fines respectively, for similar for similar transgressions.  On paper, this appears progressive, as if UEFA was actually taking a resolute stance on fighting racism in Europe. In reality, it is far from doing so.

Euro 2012 spectators may recall a different, though newsworthy altercation when gleeful Danish striker Niklas Bendtner pulled up his shirt and slightly lowered his shorts to reveal a green pair of “Paddy Power” drawers after scoring his second notch in his match against Portugal.  The penalty for this obviously farcical display? Bendtner was fined €100,000 and earned a one-match competitive fixture suspension for the upcoming World Cup Qualifier. To reiterate, the harshest punishment handed out by UEFA during the Euro Cup 2012 was for a cheeky goal celebration, and not in response to insults and bananas being hurled at black athletes. It is as if the grey-haired heads of European soccer gathered in a conference room to discuss how they could appear to care about crucial problems facing their sport whilst not actually caring about them at all, proceeding to get completely sidetracked in order to uphold 20s’ indecency laws against exhibiting undergarments in public.

UEFA’s Executive Board is not diverse. First of all, there are 17 members. All of its members are Caucasian and all of them are quite old. Only one of them is under 50 (49 and eight months) and only four are younger than 60 years old. But, in a hip and defiant move, UEFA broke up the boys’ club by adding a single, relatively young (51) female… in 2012.  Not surprisingly, these executives are either a little out of touch as to how to correctly run and police a sport dominated by youthful exuberance and multiculturalism.

These events are not occurring in Eastern Europe alone.  It is often easy for fans in the “civilized” Western world to wrongfully dismiss the problems experienced in the “barbaric” East as a hangover from years of radicalism and irrelevant to our age-old democracies and equal-rights societies. In actuality, when the wrongdoings are scrutinized, the West is anything but chaste.

For instance, among the countries penalized for racism in the European Championships was Spain. The West is not immune to bigotry. Moreover, in some areas of Germany the problem has risen so substantially that in FC Cottbus’ stadium, racial epithets are considered the norm. England appears to be the worst offender of all, with at least five supporters ejected in the past year alone for racially abusing opposing players and fans. Anti-Semitism also runs almost rampant in football expositions in Britain. Most infamously, Chelsea and Arsenal have long persecuted members of Tottenham, a team with a significant number of Jewish supporters.

[pullquote]To believe the problem of racism in soccer and society stops at the fallen Iron Curtain, then, is as short-sighted as those engaging in racism to begin with.[/pullquote]

To believe the problem of racism in soccer and society stops at the fallen Iron Curtain, then, is as short-sighted as those engaging in racism to begin with. Again, it can be said that the organizing committees have been almost willful in their compliance. The British FA continually refuses to indict fans accused of racism. Instead, the FA chooses to slap them on the wrist with menial bans that are difficult to enforce. This all but nourishes a sense of appropriateness amongst the general public.

This is not to say that the offences and faults rest solely with soccer fans. In actuality, the principal and often repeat malefactors are the players themselves. The competing teams, leagues and countries have become somewhat of a hyenas den, mercilessly gnawing and biting at the foes’ race or creed until the spirit of competition is lost.

During an October 2011 match, Luis Suarez of Liverpool racially abused Patrice Evra of Manchester United repeatedly, which ultimately led to the Suarez’s suspension by the FA. Weeks later, amidst a media-fuelled fire, former England captain John Terry was cleared, by a court of law, of racial allegations against Anton Ferdinand, an English soccer player of African descent. Terry admitted to using  “black” and “extreme sexual language” in the same sentence towards Ferdinand.  Ferdinand’s brother, famous footballer Rio Ferdinand, was then accused of racism over Twitter, towards fellow African-Englishman Ashley Cole, who supported Terry throughout proceedings.

Russian fans unfurled this inflammatory banner at a Euro 2012 match against Poland in Warsaw. (yfrog.com)
Russian fans unfurled this inflammatory banner at a Euro 2012 match against Poland in Warsaw. (yfrog.com)

The list runs on and on. Brazilian soccer star Roberto Carlos was frequently subjected to racial remarks by competitors after signing a contract in Russia in 2011, and German player Kevin Großkreutz was suspended twice over his career for using racially insensitive language. Whether or not this behaviour by players is waning remains to be seen. With many anti-racism campaigns in football cropping up across the continent, what is clear is that players too, need to realize their faults in the steady trend of racism and fall into the mould of social conscientiousness if football is to transcend racism in the immediate future.

Regardless of whether the blame is assigned to players, spectators, or governing officials, or if it is Eastern or Western Europe worthy of condemnation, the fact of the matter is something must change. With increasing amounts of bigotry across the entire spectrum that is football, one must remember that it is the chosen ambassador of globalism in sport. Racism affects not only those subjected to it, but the entire two billion fans worldwide who long for  a prejudice-free medium. Unless UEFA chooses to abandon its archaic form of rule, fans are subjected to more austere penalties for hooliganism, and players are less acrimonious in their exchanges with fellow competitors. Then, soccer faces the risk of losing its global relevance and its title as ‘the beautiful game.’