Earlier this month, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association — international soccer’s governing body — disbanded its anti-racism task force, claiming that it had “completely fulfilled its temporary mission.” And to that I say, mission accomplished, everyone! Racism in soccer is dead; we’ve done it!
In spite of my budding optimism and joy that FIFA has, once and for all, conquered racism at all levels of the game, I am left with a few questions regarding the decision.
First and foremost among these queries is why Osasu Obayiuwana, a key member of the now defunct task force, seems so insistent that his team’s anti-racism initiative hasn’t actually finished the job it was created to do.
“The problem of racism in football remains a burning, very serious and topical one which needs continuous attention,” Obayiuwana said in an interview with the Associated Press.
However, I am sure that Obayiuwana is mistaken and that the decision to eliminate the task force has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that we are now less than two years away from a World Cup hosted by Russia. Russian soccer fans are, after all, known for being particularly welcoming to minority players. Just ask Zenit St. Petersburg’s star striker Hulk, who, just last year, told the Guardian that he encounters “racism in almost every game” and also regularly faces monkey chants from the Russian Premier League’s classiest and most culturally sensitive fans.
Perhaps though, FIFA disbanded the task force because the undoubtedly more competent Gianni Infantino has finally replaced the organization’s biggest individual blemish, Sepp Blatter, as president. Blatter, the soccer equivalent of Donald Trump, spent a career with FIFA cyclically inserting and removing his foot from his mouth. The former FIFA head, in a series of sterling displays of progressive leadership, insisted that racism in soccer could be solved with a handshake between players and also suggested that female players should wear tighter shorts. Clearly, FIFA has always led the charge toward social consciousness.
With all tongue-in-cheek tone aside though, the 2018 World Cup poses a serious challenge to any and all efforts to quell the tide of racism within the beautiful game. Russian fans caused absolute chaos at Euro 2016, displaying neo-Nazi banners and bellowing racist chants. Independent researchers chronicled 92 separate instances of racist displays or chants by Russian fans in the 2014–15 season alone.
Unfortunately, soccer has never been a sport absent of racist influences, particularly in Europe, where black players face discrimination at every level of the game and in virtually every major league. For example, in 2015, Mario Balotelli, then a striker with Liverpool, earned the regrettable title of “Most Racially-Abused Footballer” after news surfaced that he had received over 4,000 racist messages on Twitter alone. Bearing this sort of information in mind, the idea that FIFA has come anywhere close to stamping out problems of discrimination amongst fans, referees, coaches and players is not just absurd. It’s insulting.
Not only is the concept that FIFA has somehow done away with its less than savory social issues harmful to the game of soccer, but it also helps to propagate the myth that we are living in a post-racial society. If soccer is a microcosm of society, then the denial of one of its most toxic and divisive forms of prejudice sets a deleterious precedent that cannot be ignored.
FIFA’s decision to disband its anti-racism task force just nine months before Russia hosts the Confederations Cup and less than two years before it hosts the 2018 World Cup is yet another example of the organization letting its worst offenders off the hook. Russian soccer fans, officials and even players have repeatedly and egregiously demonstrated classlessness, violence and racism to an appalling degree. FIFA’s curiously timed choice is clear capitulation to a Russian Football Union that has done absolutely nothing meaningful to correct these issues. Quite frankly, whenever the major governing powers of international soccer have had an opportunity to take meaningful action against racism in the game they have dropped the ball. The tenure of Sepp Blatter represented one of the darker periods in modern FIFA history, and this ruling indicates that little, if anything, will change for the better with Infantino at the helm. Meanwhile, footballers from around the world, comprising countless minority groups, are still victims of racist chants, are still having bananas tossed at their feet and are still being treated as second-class citizens by the worst representatives of the soccer world.
FIFA has, once again, shown itself to be a tone deaf, classless and morally bankrupt organization. If we’re unable even to acknowledge or address racism within the confines of the world’s most popular sport, what hope can we possibly have to correct it on a more significant level? Well, FIFA’s leadership appears utterly disinterested in the answer to that question.
Marc Cugnon is a senior in Calhoun College. Contact him at