Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Stain on the Beautiful Game

As the Ivory Coast and Angola kick off their world cup campaigns this weekend, I feel compelled to draw attention to an issue that for the most part has been neglected by FIFA and many of Europe's top leagues. By now most of you have either seen or heard about the story of racism in Europe's soccer leagues. The sight of banans thrown on the field and the sound of monkey chants are a common occurrence in some of Europe's top leagues. They should not be. Organizations like Nike have done admirable things to attempt to raise awareness about racism in the game but I think it will take the national federations and FIFA to stand up and really make a change. The reason why the practice persists is twofold, I believe. First, racism seems culturally entrenched in some countries across Europe and is not taken seriously as a distinct problem.

Thierry Henry, the face of Nike's campagain against racism.

For example, Spanish coach Luis Aragones called Thierry Henry a "black shit" and thought nothing of it. Neither did the Spanish football association as he was fined only 3000 euros for his comments. A small financial penalty is not enough of a deterrent to encourage a change in behavior. Simply, 3,000 euros is nothing to Luis Aragones. Fining him that amount will not result in a change in his behavior. Stiffer sanctions would be more likely to encourage a change in behavior.

"Another case in point would be the downfall of 'Big' Ron Atkinson, a well-respected TV analyst and ex-manager of Manchester United, who, after watching a lacklustre performance by the English team Chelsea against Monaco in the semi-final of the Champions League, correctly believed they'd blown their chances of reaching the final. He was particularly upset with defender Marcel Desailly, the French World Cup winner who he felt had performed with less than 100% effort. Five minutes after the game's conclusion and with his link to the UK broadcast terminated, Atkinson was still muttering to no one in particular about Desailly's disappointing display. "He's what is known in some schools as a fucking lazy thick nigger," he declared, confident that his microphone had long been switched off. (quote taken from

When individuals at the institutional level of the game are involved in racism it only emboldens those in the stands to join in because if it is not deemed as a problem institutionally there is no example set for the fans to exhibit some modicum of decency towards black players.

Racism is not seen as a distinct problem to be treated but is often lumped in as a form of hooliganism. This could not be farther off the mark. Hooliganism, as a practice, is indiscriminate destructive behavior by a group of rabble rousers. No one in particular is targetted just those who are not wearing the jersey of the team your support. Racism, however, specifically targets players for abuse on the basis of their skin color.

Also, hooligans rarely, if ever, harm individuals who play for their team or support their team. Yet, many black players are often racially abused by their own fans. For example, Espanyol(Spanish team in the first division) goalkeeper Carlos Kameni is often showered with racist taunts and bananas from his own supporters.
It is time for FIFA president Sepp Blatter to get serious about racism. If I were in his position I would ensure that national leagues implemented sanctions that would dock teams three points (the equivalent of a victory) for the first time monkey chants echoed in their home stadium or a banana or object of any kind was hurled on the field. The second occurrence would result in a stiff financial penalty with a further penalty of 6 points docked for this behavior. If teams continue to fail to control their home crowds then a demotion to a lower league would seem fair to me. There are obvious objections to these proposals, not the least of which include suspicion that teams would send their fans to games of their rivals to taunt black players in an attempt to get their rivals docked points or even demoted. This, however, misses the point. The teams need to be able to control the crowd. Regardless of who is in the crowd teams should have a strategy in place to ensure that players can concentrate on playing the game without worrying about being hit my objects or abused on the basis of their race.

The second reason I believe that racism is not taken seriously is that many of the places in which racism occur do not have a large enough black population to weild any political clout. To my knowledge there is no Spanish, Italian or Russian equivalent to the NAACP. If there were maybe there would be domestic pressure to implement change, but without this players are often fighting the battles themselves. The only threat they have however is to walk off the field. Samuel Eto'o the Cameroonian from Barcelona threatened to do this earlier this year but eventually decided against it and continued playing. What I think would be a stronger statement would be if a white player walked off the field because of racist chants. It would be akin to the northern whites who got involved in the American civil rights movement and gave it a level of legitimacy it otherwise would not have had without them.

The world cup is soccer's grandest stage. I would hate to see it tainted by a racist outburst during the next month. However, if it were to happen it would bring high profile global attention to the problem and force FIFA's hand and make them act on the issue. It should go without saying that racism has no place in the world generally and definitely not in soccer, the beautiful game.


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