Racism in soccer

When England took the field yesterday in its World Cup Qualifier against Poland, it was conspicuously missing its former captain, John Terry. Under a month ago, Terry — generally considered one of the best central defenders of the last decade, but also one of the game’s biggest villains — retired from international soccer because the English football association (FA) attempted to discipline him for allegedly using racially abusive language towards another player, Anton Ferdinand, in a match in the English Premier League on October 23 last year.

Terry explained his retirement by petulantly asserting that the FA had “made my position with the national team untenable.” Indeed, Terry was cleared of the same charges in a magistrates’ court in London this past July. But the FA is allowed to investigate whatever it pleases. It is of particular note that Ferdinand is the brother of another England central defender, Rio Ferdinand. And when it rains it pours: Terry, while captain, also slept with his left back’s former girlfriend (who was also Terry’s wife’s best friend). Perhaps Terry should consider that he made his position with the national team untenable.

Terry’s alleged racial abuse hints at a larger issue that is coming to taint international soccer and domestic leagues around Europe: There is blatant racism in the game and not much at all is being done to combat it.

England has a reputation as a safe haven, a place where players of all colors and nationalities can come and be respected in an advanced society. Not so. Besides the recent hoopla surrounding Terry, exactly a year ago, Luis Suarez, Liverpool’s fleet-footed Uruguayan forward, was banned eight matches for “using insulting words towards” Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, who is French and black. The worst part was that the week after Suarez was banned, his Liverpool teammates wore warm-up t-shirts supporting their striker. Yes, the same one who had just been suspended for repeatedly calling Evra a “negro.”

Hey, maybe Spain is better, right? The president of their FA reported last week that “there is no racism in Spanish football.” This was certainly interesting to hear. Just this past summer at the European Championships, the Spanish football federation was fined because the Spanish fans racially abused Italian forward Mario Balotelli, who is of Ghanaian descent. Also, Barcelona’s Brazilian fullback Dani Alves has said that the racism in Spain is “uncontrollable” and that he’s simply learned to live with it. Another of Barcelona’s black players, Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon, could not live with it and opted to leave Barcelona, due largely to the rampant racism he faced there. Perhaps most telling is the former Spanish national team coach, Luis Aragones, who, in conversation years ago with one of his players, referred to France’s Thierry Henry as “that black s*.” So yeah, not much racism in Spanish soccer.

Italy may be the worst. Many black players know not to ply their trade in Italy because they will be forced out. Even black Italians, such as Balotelli, are viciously abused. While Balotelli was playing for Inter Milan, fans of a rival club once threw bananas onto the field, directed towards the young striker. But even after joining England’s Manchester City, Balotelli could not escape abuse from his homeland “supporters.” Before playing against England in the quarterfinals of the Euros this past summer, Balotelli appeared in an Italian sports newspaper as the cartoon character King Kong climbing on Big Ben. The day after scoring two beautiful goals in their scintillating semifinal victory over Germany, Balotelli appeared on the front page of another Italian sports paper under the headline, “We made them black!” The comment was a pun on bruising the opposition, but also, of course, on the color of Balotelli’s skin.

The Italians’ hesitancy to accept even one of their own reminded me of an excellent book about Italian soccer called The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss. In the book, McGinniss follows the 1997 season of a small team from Castel di Sangro, a mountain town of 6,000. At one point, a transfer has been agreed for Joseph Addo, the one-time captain of the Ghanaian national team, only for the club to pull out of the deal mysteriously. The suggestion is that Castel di Sangro’s coach was not comfortable with a black player on his team, no matter how good he might be. Addo would have been far and away the best player on the squad.

Racism in soccer is probably most pronounced in eastern Europe. This last summer, when Poland and the Ukraine jointly hosted Euro 2012, racism ran rampant. Before the tournament, a former England captain warned English fans, particularly those of color, to stay home from the tournament in order to avoid “coming back in a coffin.” This advice proved prudent as the Spanish, Russian, and Croatian football federations were all fined for their fans’ racist behavior, the Dutch team was abused at its training ground by local observers and the German football federation was fined because its fans displayed neo-Nazi symbols during a victory over Denmark. Keep in mind that this was a 16-team tournament. Over one-quarter of the participating countries were fined.

Prior to the tournament, both players and administrators had taken a hard line towards racism. Rhetorically, that is. Balotelli said that if a banana were thrown at him on the pitch, he would go to jail because he would kill those people who threw it at him. UEFA’s president, Michel Platini, said that referees were under instructions to stop matches if racist behavior were directed towards players. Well, racist behavior was directed towards the players and no matches were stopped.

Things have not gotten better since the summer. Yesterday, Serbia and England played an under–21 match in Krusevac. The match was marred by monkey chants and worse. I’ll let England left back Danny Rose explain: “[In the second half] I had two stones hit me in the head when I went to get the ball for a throw-in. Every time I touched the ball I heard monkey chants,” Rose said. Naturally, the Serbian FA denied that there was any racist chanting during the match and even attempted to shift the blame to Rose himself, claiming that he provoked the fans by acting in an “inappropriate, unsportsmanlike and vulgar manner.” (In frustration, Rose did kick a ball into the stands at the very end of the game). Many around the world are calling for Serbia to be banned from international soccer.

You might think that this issue is far from us. Sure, hooliganism and racist soccer fans exist, but they do so on the other side of the Atlantic. But listen to this. I am one of the captains of the club soccer team here at Yale. The other day, in the middle of our game against a nearby university, one of the other team’s players called one of our players so heinous a name that we had to stop the game in order to process fully what had happened. One of their athletic administrators came out onto the field, and we voiced our displeasure and astonishment. It was an important moment of recognition that our game was about more than just the result. I think that UEFA, FIFA and all the FAs around the world would do well to take an example from us: Do not be overly swayed by moneymaking, or any other, motives. If egregious prejudice continues to intrude upon the game we all love for its diversity, you will have a weaker product to market.

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