FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, approved a package of reforms meant to address the racism and abuse that permeates international soccer and returned to focus when Kevin Prince Boateng, a Ghanaian midfielder for Italian club AC Milan, walked off the pitch after fans showered him with racial taunts in a friendly match this year. Fans have also targeted Boateng’s teammate, Milan striker Mario Balotelli, and it seems not a month goes by without news of another racial incident at a soccer match somewhere in the world.
FIFA’s efforts face significant challenges, though, and one of them may be that the most common racism isn’t at matches in top-tier leagues like Italy’s Serie A, where Milan plays, or in major international matches.
The question facing FIFA and its continental and domestic federations is whether it can or will apply the same scrutiny to soccer’s lower leagues, which exist as an afterthought for most soccer fans, regulators, and media. Will racism that occurs on the dusty fields and in the empty “stadiums” that play host to those matches be noticed, monitored, and punished the same way it will be at matches that occur in the international spotlight and spark ugly headlines across the world?
Remember Stadiums of Hate, last summer’s BBC Panorama program that informed viewers of the virulent and unchecked racism prevalent in the Polish and Ukrainian stadiums that would host the upcoming European Championships? That documentary—and the crucial issues surrounding it—was in large part a galvanizing reason why I created this tumblr. From one of my early posts:
Reporter Chris Rogers traveled to host countries Poland and Ukraine to observe fan behavior in soccer matches. The images, especially those in Ukraine, were disturbing. Large fan sections in Polish stadiums were chanting anti-semitic jeers as standard fare and made monkey noises at black players. The Ukraine footage showed—with the journalist himself in the frame, which eliminates the possibility that this was old stock footage—hundreds, if not thousands, of fans raising their arms in Nazi salutes and, in the worst scene, a pack of fans abandon the fight they were in with opposing fans and run across several sections of the stadium to attack a group of South Asian students. The students, who were cheering for the same team as their attackers, were beaten, kicked, dragged up and pushed down the stairs. It took an excruciatingly long time for stadium authorities to arrive on the scene and, even then, all they could do was try to move the students out. Other footage shows riot police pinned against plexiglass by rioting fans, so it’s not clear how effective authorities would be anyway.
During the program, we see former England captain Sol Campbell watching the footage and commenting on it. In fact, the program unwisely treats him as an authority on the subject. Nevertheless, he strongly urged fans to stay at home, lest they end up dead. (His exact words: “you could end up coming back in a coffin.”) The British Foreign Office has warned fans of Afro-Caribbean and South Asian descent to take special caution. The families of two young England players, including 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is playing in his first major soccer tournament (and whose father himself played for England), aren’t going.
Although there were several incidents of black players being jeered by opposing team fans (again, well documented here), we did not see the kind of ghastly spectacles anticipated by Stadiums of Hate. One of the theories going into the tournament was that the worst racist offenders are partisans of their local clubs; they wouldn’t be interested in the international competition.
A year on, and Waldron’s comments, which draw on Wright Thompson’s reporting for ESPN about racist ultras in Italy—add weight to that theory. While incidents against Balotelli or Boateng get a lot of attention, it’s the lower club levels where the majority of the abuse occurs. It’s also the lower levels that might be the hardest to regulate. And it’s likely that if we see a significant decrease in racism incidents at the international level, it may not be an accurate reflection of a wider spread eradication.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Altidore said he decided to play through the abuse Tuesday because he didn’t want to give satisfaction to people who directed monkey chants at him.
The 23-year-old said it was the first time he has experienced racism like this, on or off the field.
'This was pretty big. To have a stadium chanting monkey sounds is not something pleasant,' he said in the phone interview. 'I'm the only black player on my team, so I think it was more directed to me than anyone else.'
Jackie Robinson’s birthday was Thursday. Two days before the first black player in Major League Baseball would have turned 94, American soccer player Jozy Altidore was racially abused by Dutch fans of FC Den Bosch, the team against which Altidore’s AZ Alkmaar was playing.
Unrelenting monkey chants. Just weeks after Kevin-Prince Boateng walked off a pitch in Italy in response to fans’ taunts.
UEFA/FIFA, get your house in order.
Rather than make clear from the top that racist abuse will not be tolerated, UEFA is worryingly silent. And when they do talk, like last summer when they fined a Danish player more for wearing unapproved underwear than they did the national teams whose fans abused black players like Theodor Gebre Selassie or Mario Balotelli, their priorities are never quite in line.
The silence and/or uselessness from the top leaves the sole responsibility of responding to racist fan culture to men who are barely adults and are being abused and attacked in their place of business. And when individuals are making decisions on the spot and under enormous pressure, we see a variety of responses that journalists and other commentators are taking it upon themselves to judge. Is Altidore’s playing on better than Boateng’s leaving?
Who are we to judge?
And why are we spending more time thinking about the individual choices these players are making instead of demanding that UEFA/FIFA treat this as an issue of utmost importance? We owe it to Jackie Robinson to demand better.
Kevin-Prince Boateng’s stand (or walk, more precisely) against racist fans. It speaks for itself.
racism in English soccer, redux
Not only is the John Terry debacle not dying down—Terry recently retired from international football before his FA disciplinary hearing—we seem to be hearing more about it, and racism in soccer, than ever. The Observer, for one, isn’t happy about where the FA seems to be on racism.
And the FA, even now, seem to have some difficulty learning lessons from this fiasco. In a briefing to journalists from the Sunday media on Thursday – before the publication of the independent commission’s report – the England manager, Roy Hodgson, responding to persistent questions, said he might consider giving the captaincy to Ashley Cole for the World Cup game against Poland to coincide with the defender’s 100th cap.
On Saturday the FA made it clear to those same journalists that they should not refer to that section of the press conference lest it reflect badly on Hodgson or the FA, or that not giving the captaincy would be seen as revenge for the Cole tweet. Perish the thought.
The fact that the request from the FA came with an implicit threat that anyone who ignored this advisory might suffer in terms of future cooperation from the FA is both abysmal and shocking.
Racism is vile and malevolent and has blighted many people’s lives. It continues to do so, although great strides have been taken to reduce its incidence. Only racists and intellectual Neanderthals would need convincing that society has to adopt a zero tolerance approach to incidences of racism, or racist insults. And that includes football.
As one writer noted on Saturday: “Most footballers get through the day without uttering a racist remark.” In fact, most of us get through the day without uttering a racist remark.
Terry and Cole are an embarrassment to football, to Chelsea and to England. The club – and just as importantly, their supporters – need to be seen to understand that clearly. And react accordingly.
There are new reports about racist chants in English stadiums as well. Stadiums of hate, anyone?
The Bolton striker Marvin Sordell has claimed he and several of his team-mates were racially abused by Millwall fans during his side’s 2-1 defeat at the Den.
The 21-year-old, who was a member of the Team GB squad at the London 2012 Olympics, wrote on Twitter that he had reported his allegations to officials, and claimed that midfielders Lee Chung-yong and Darren Pratley, plus his fellow forward Benik Afobe, had also been subjected to racist taunts by a section of home supporters.
Sordell, an unused substitute in the match, wrote: “Putting the match aside, its 2012 in England and people are still shouting racial abuse at a football game? Shocking.”
He added: “Chungy, Pratts, Benik and I had all sorts of things said to us. The police were standing yards away and did nothing.”
Sordell, who claims the word “slave” was among those aimed at him, also received abusive responses to his allegations on Twitter.
He added: “Funniest thing is if I had come on and scored and gave them some back, I would be the one who got fined.”
Croatia’s head coach, Slaven Bilic, has delivered the strongest condemnation of racism yet and insisted that sanctions must be imposed in order to stamp out the problem forever. His words come two days before Uefa is due to make a decision on the punishment handed out after a banana was thrown on the pitch and around 200 fans made monkey chants during Croatia’s 1-1 draw with Italy last Thursday.
Asked whether he expects a similar punishment, Bilic did not shirk the issue. Instead, he called for stern action to be taken. ‘[Racism] is a big problem all around Europe and all around the world and on behalf of the entire nation, not even as a football manager, I want to say that I am really disappointed as a Croatian, a parent, and a sportsman, a person who comes from a modern, open-minded and tolerant state,’ he said.
'Everyone is welcome in our country. I don't like these kind of supporters and nor do my players. I live in Croatia and we really are a tolerant country. We are not a racist country and we are angry at these few crazy supporters. We have to put sanctions [in place] and stop these kind of supporters forever.'
Rio Ferdinand has criticised Uefa after European football’s governing body banned Nicklas Bendtner for one competitive fixture and fined the striker €100,000 (£80,383) for exposing sponsored underwear in Denmark’s European Championship defeat to Portugal last Wednesday.
Ferdinand, the Manchester United defender, wrote on Twitter: ‘Uefa are you for real??? £80,000 fine for Bendtner for underwear advertising…. all of the racism fines together don’t even add up to that?!
'Uefa are not serious… Platini was a great player but him & his colleagues alienate themselves with exactly this type of rubbish. If racism made money for Uefa like advertising does do you think Uefa would take it as serious?? #priorities'
Dumb move of the week goes to UEFA, which fined Denmark’s Nicklas Bendtner nearly $126,000 Monday and suspended him for one World Cup qualifier for a stunt in which he celebrated a goal by pulling up his shirt to reveal an advertisement on his underwear. I can understand the market-driven reasoning for UEFA’s heavy fine, but it’s completely tone-deaf for UEFA to fine Bendtner so much more than the fines UEFA has given to national associations for incidents involving racism and crowd violence. What kind of message is UEFA sending? That protecting its sponsors is more important than taking a real stand against racism and violence. And that’s embarrassing.
catching up on UEFA’s approach to racism
Although there haven’t been any racism incidents rivaling the kind shown on Panorama's “Stadiums of Hate,” fairly credible reports of abuse against two black players have surfaced, and UEFA has had to take action. Czech player Theodor Gebre Selassie confirmed that he heard abuse during the Czech Republic’s match with Russia, although he did not file an official complaint. To my knowledge, Mario Balotelli either didn’t hear the taunts or isn’t saying that he did, but UEFA’s investigating abuse from Spanish and Croatian fans towards the Italian striker. The abuse at the Croatia match also potentially involved one banana thrown onto the pitch, but the evidence for that is a picture of a steward with a banana in his hand.
Things to note:
- To this point, Polish and Ukrainian fans have not been accused of any of this. Poland played the Czech Republic on Saturday, and no reports have surfaced. Ukraine played France (one of the teams with a large black contingent) on Friday, and no reports have surfaced.
- Is it simply a coincidence that the two players abused so far have been the only black players on their teams?
UEFA is making all the right noises, opening investigations, etc., etc. But the incredibly severe penalty (€100,000 plus a one-game suspension) assessed to Denmark’s Nicklas Bendtner for flashing underwear during his goal celebrations that had an unauthorized sponsor label on the waistband puts UEFA in a bad light. Recent penalties imposed on nations whose fans have abused players with racist taunts pale in comparison to Bendtner’s punishment.
One person who is taking a firm stance is Croatia’s coach, Slaven Bilic, who has categorically condemned the actions of Croatian fans.
I’ll be posting a series of responses to the disconnect between UEFA’s crackdown on sponsor violations and the organization’s more tepid penalties for racism.
One final note: The game with the most potential for racist fan ruckus is tomorrow’s match between England and Ukraine, for a number of reasons. The journalism that broke the story of racism in Poland and Ukraine was produced by the BBC. Like France, the England team also has a large number of black players. The match is happening in Ukraine and against Ukraine, so there’s the possibility that more of the fans who normally attend local club matches might attend this match. Similarly, English fans are streaming into the city: over the past few days, numbers have apparently doubled from a pretty meager 5,000. The match is also very high stakes: it’s the elimination round. Each team can go through if they win. Only England can go through on a draw. So the potential is there. Apparently there are posters plastered around Donetsk announcing Ukrainian hooligans’ intentions to fight. But really, there’s no way to know until we watch the match tomorrow.
Per the Guardian/Associated Press, UEFA is launching an investigation into the reports of racist abuse launched at black players Mario Balotelli of Italy and Theodor Gebre Selassie of the Czech Republic by fans of Spain and Russia, respectively. However, as the article points out, there are challenges in determining what counts as evidence of racism, which will make it difficult for UEFA to take any action. Once again, it looks as though the only significant action would be for players to leave, but I suspect that very few players have enough support from captains and managers to do that. (England captain Steven Gerrard has hinted that his team would walk off. Dutch captain Mark von Bommel moved his team away from racist chanting, but that was practice, not a game.)
[I]nstead of taking the earliest possible opportunity to hear the case concerning an incident dating back to last October, [Westminsters magistrates’ court] agreed to wait until July, leaving Terry free to represent Chelsea in three major club competitions and the European Championship.
It is hard to imagine such an accommodation being made at the behest of a plumber with a diary full of jobs for the next six months or a young actor engaged for a long run in a small but career-building part in the West End. Perhaps by agreeing to a postponement with Terry’s lawyers, the official in question at the magistrates’ court imagined that he or she was somehow serving a national interest. Instead, England now find themselves entering a tournament at which the preliminaries have been overshadowed by allegations of racism in the two countries hosting the championship – largely provoked by an excellent BBC documentary – while giving a place in their squad to a player accused of being a racist. Foreigners may be confused by this.
more reports of racist chants
There are reports that a few hundred Spanish fans taunted monkey chants at Italian striker Mario Balotelli during yesterday’s match between Spain and Italy. Reputable newspapers have yet to verify this information, and Balotelli hasn’t confirmed that he heard anything. (He hasn’t denied it either. He may be laying low after his disastrous performance yesterday.) Two thoughts, keeping in mind that this might turn out to be a false alarm.
- First, if it did happen, then it lends more credence to my idea that the real story here is UEFA’s ineffective handling of the situation, rather than a story about Poland and Ukraine.
- Second, there seems to be about a day’s lag time between a match and reports of racist abuse. (Also the ESPN feeds don’t pick these incidents up.) I’ll be on the lookout for more confirmation of this alleged abuse against Balotelli as well as any reports that may materialize from yesterday’s matches. The first match featured the largest number of black players on the pitch during any one match. The second match, Sweden and Ukraine, featured Swedish defender Martin Olsson, whose mother is Kenyan. Given that his job involved tackling Ukrainian players charging towards the goal and that the Ukrainian fans were one of the listed groups in the Panorama documentary, he might have been a potential target of racist heckling (which is not the same thing as booing).
The attempt to pretend that the abuse came from fans disappointed that Krakow was not included in the tournament’s match schedule flies in the face of the testimony from the players themselves. They would hardly be looking for an opportunity to alienate fans in the country in which, should they fulfil expectations of qualification from Group B, they will be playing their quarter-final match.
At the very least their complaint should have been given the dignity of proper consideration. If they were indeed mistaken about the nature of the abuse, fair enough. But by reaching an exculpatory judgment on a matter of great sensitivity with what seems like indecent haste, Uefa has made it look as though it is primarily interested in sweeping the matter under the red carpet on which it will parade at the opening ceremony.
Fighting the plague of racism head-on involves taking every allegation seriously. Painful as it is to say this about a body headed by one of the great figures of modern football, only when Michel Platini and Uefa learn that lesson will they themselves deserve to be taken for anything but blazered fools and apparatchiks whose continued reluctance to use their power for the public good makes them accessories to a crime.