The Beautiful Game Gone Ugly: Soccer’s Troubling Racism Problem

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While Sepp Blatter says Boateng was wrong to walk off, Kevin-Prince is adamant that he will do it again if he suffers more abuse

It’s one thing for fans to throw themselves into a game — cheer their team’s players, boo the opposition and shout one of the many variations of, “Did you forget your glasses at home?” to referees after each questionable call.

It’s another to start monkey chants every time a black player touches the ball and to hurl bananas at them.

It’s one thing for players to talk trash, to psyche someone out when the big moment comes like Scottie Pippen famously did to Karl ‘The Mailman’ Malone in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals, telling him in the final seconds, “The Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays.”

It’s another to bombard your opponent with racial slurs.

The game of soccer faces its fair share of problems these days — in no particular order: being governed by a man who moonlights as every PR director’s worst nightmare (more on Mr. Blatter later), players acting as though they have torn both of their ACLs and all of their ribs if someone on the other team so much as breathes on them, and a bizarre insistence on pretending that it’s 1913 instead of 2013 and that video replay ought not to be used to correct obvious referring gaffes — but one problem hangs like a cloud above all the others: racism. They just can’t seem to kick it out.

That’s not to say that racism is a new problem in soccer — it isn’t. But the issue once again shot to the forefront last week when Kevin-Prince Boateng and the rest of his AC Milan teammates walked off the pitch (playing field) in protest after fans repeatedly showered Boateng with racial abuse. Incidents such as these are unfortunately all too commonplace in soccer, as evidenced by Referee Fernando Carmona Mendez’s notes from a 2005 game in which Real Zaragoza fans started chanting like monkeys each time Barcelona striker Samuel Eto’o touched the ball and threw peanuts onto the field when he scored a goal. Mendez described the fans behavior that day as “normal.” In walking off the field, Boateng and the rest of his AC Milan teammates certainly raised awareness for an issue that has plagued soccer for far too long. But is walking out really a long-term solution to the problem?

FIFA President Sepp Blatter does not seem to think so, saying, “It (walking out) can’t be the solution because you can never solve any problem in your life, being in private life, in economic life, wherever, by running away.” It is with no small amount of trepidation that I must concede that I agree with him.[1] Soccer, like any other sport, is a form of entertainment, which means that it is entirely dependent on customers (fans) who pay to see their matches. Repeatedly walking out on your customers is effectively the kiss of death. Sure, some of those in attendance very well may have realized they were witnessing something historic and cheered AC Milan as they left the field. But those cheers will give way to whistles soon enough if teams continue to do this. The game, like the show, must go on. And real change must come from elsewhere. But if walking out is not the answer, what can be done to combat racial abuse in soccer?

The popular refrain is that fans that spray racist filth ought to be immediately removed from the stadium and banned from ever returning. It sounds like a great idea in theory, but implementing such a plan comes with its share of challenges. Removing someone from the stadium is easy enough, sure. But what sorts of measures can teams put in place to ensure that they never return again? Sure, they can ban these fans from the stadium and put them on the soccer equivalent of the airline “No-Fly” list, but it’s not as though you need to present photo ID in order to purchase a ticket and walk into the stadium. Airlines don’t have to worry about ticket scalping the way that sports teams do.

And it’s not like it’s just the fans either. In 2004, Spain manager Luis Aragonés was caught on camera telling one of his players, “Show that black piece of shit that you’re better than he is,” with the he in question being France’s star player Thierry Henry. Such a remark would no doubt be grounds for termination (with cause) for a coach at any level here in the United States — much less the head coach of a national team — but Aragonés was not fired. Heck, the Spanish Football Federation didn’t even think his comments warranted a suspension. Instead, he received a £2,000 fine, a figure that seems grossly inadequate given the nature of his comments. Not surprisingly, a court ruled that the fine in question was unfair upon appeal. Unfortunately, their ruling was the opposite direction of what could reasonably be expected: the fine was vacated. To put that in context, the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs were fined $250,000 for resting four of their players and sending them home rather than have them play their fourth game in five nights. Which is the greater crime?

Players have recently started to receive much harsher penalties for racist acts and abuse on the pitch. Former England national team captain John Terry was stripped of his captaincy in the wake of reports that he abused Queens Park Rangers player Anton Ferdinand and was suspended for four games for his language. Last week Brazilian defender Danilo was sentenced to a year in prison for spitting in the face of his opponent and calling him a monkey. True, Danilo will likely not spend time in prison for this (his sentence is likely to be reduced to a fine instead of jail time), but the imminent €127,000 sends a strong message that such behavior will no longer be tolerated. Unfortunately, such a fine had to come from a criminal court rather than the Brazilian soccer governing bodies. What is soccer really doing to combat the problem?

They are trying a couple different solutions. Less than a week ago, FIFA announced that Hungary and Bulgaria will both be forced to play their next World Cup qualifying match behind closed doors because Hungarian fans showered members of the Israeli national team with anti-Semitic chants and Bulgarian supporters racially abused Denmark’s Patrick Mtiliga. It’s an interesting answer to a very complex problem and there are definitely those who support implementing it more often, especially on the club level. FIFA President Blatter has offered his own take on what it will take to tackle the problem: “I think a more radical solution would be deduction of points. Deduction of points would have a better impact on that than any other sanction.”

Point deduction has never been implemented in response to fan misbehavior, so it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, it might have on eradicating racism.[2] But if taking points away from teams doesn’t prove to be a strong enough deterrent, there’s always the nuclear option: relegation.

See, while bottom-feeding franchises here in the United States (i.e. Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates and, until recently, the Los Angeles Clippers) are allowed to wallow in squalor year after year after year, cellar-dwelling European soccer clubs don’t just miss the playoffs, they actually get sent down to a lower league. This system of relegation is not only highly embarrassing for underperforming clubs, but financially devastating as well.

Each season in the English Premier League, for example, the bottom three teams exchange places with the three top teams in the (Football League) Championship, costing each of the relegated teams an estimated $65 million in television and other Premier League revenues. Such measures ensure that European soccer teams always try to field a competitive team, unlike in the NFL & NBA where teams oftentimes have strong incentives to lose or tank games so they can get a better spot in the Draft the following year. (Remember the “Suck for Luck” campaign?)

But what if teams weren’t just relegated based on performance? What if clubs found guilty of racial abuse lost their place in their respective league and were knocked down a notch? All club employees — players, coaches, etc. — would be given directives from management heads that they were never to make comments or exhibit behavior that could in any way be construed as racially insensitive, for fear that they might be demoted and, by extension, miss out on the financial windfall that comes from playing at the highest levels. Relegating teams based on individual instances of poor fan behavior would be too extreme, but if fans demonstrate a repeated pattern of racial abuse (as is the case for Zenit St Petersburg of the Russian Premier League), then relegation would again fit the bill.

Boateng and his teammates took a strong stand in walking off the field together and helped, please excuse the pun, to get the ball rolling when it comes to combatting racism in soccer. They are to be commended for that. But walkouts cannot be the default solution whenever racism rears its ugly head. Soccer’s governing bodies must take the lead on this one. They must take swift and powerful action in order to ensure that this problem is squashed once and for all. If that means clearing the stadium, do it. If that means taking points away from a club or nation, so be it. And if teams or their fans don’t respond to either of those, then relegation (or, in the case of international play, disqualification) rules must be put in place. It’s time to eliminate the ugly side of the beautiful game.


[1] You’ll have to excuse me if I’m a bit hesitant to side with a man who suggested that the way to increase women’s soccer popularity was to, “wear tighter shorts and low cut shirts,” whose proposed solution to the imbalance in the England’s Premier League was not a salary cap (a la the NFL and NHL), but to instead limit the number of foreign players each team was allowed to have and who recently handed a World Cup — the biggest event in all of sports this side of the Olympics – to a nation (Qatar) so unfriendly to members of the LGBT community that foreigners have actually been prosecuted in the last twenty years simply for being gay and then had the gall to joke, “I’d say they [meaning gay fans] should refrain from sexual activities.” This is not to suggest that Blatter is in any way sexist, racist or homophobic. Rather, he is merely an idiot of the highest order.
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[2] It can be difficult for Americans to imagine how European soccer fans can be so callous and why they aren’t quickly thrown out of the stadium. (Or, at the very least, instructed to knock it off by nearby fans.) But it’s also dangerous to believe that sports here in America are beyond reproach when it comes to the issue of racism. Rarely is it as blatantly obvious as in soccer, but some of is it so ingrained that we don’t really notice it at all. For example, when we hear the name Washington Redskins, the first names that probably spring to mind are Robert Griffin III, Joe Gibbs and Joe Theismann. Most of us do not, to be sure, consider the name of the team itself: Redskins, which is sometimes perceived as being a racial slur. (To a lesser extent, the same could be said of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, as Irish immigrants were once tabbed with the stereotype as being drunks who constantly got into fights. However, “fighting” can also refer to a team’s fighting spirit.) Similarly, American athletes are also guilty of using language that is less than inclusive from time to time. Less than two years ago, Kobe Bryant was famously fined $100,000for directing a homophobic slur at an official, but the NBA stopped short of suspending him for his comments.
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About Ryan Hallagan

Ryan Hallagan recently graduated from the University of San Diego with a B.A. in Psychology and English and plans to parlay that education into writing about his greatest passion: the big business that is professional sports. He also enjoys writing short stories, obsessively listens to bands like The Gaslight Anthem and actively wishes that a time-traveling DeLorean really did exist, so that he could go back to 1975, far away from all of the terrible music he hears on the radio today. Follow him on Twitter @rallyforhally
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