Hypocrisy of the World’s Game

Many find soccer’s most beautiful quality to be its ability to spark unity. The world is united when nations put their differences aside and send their national teams to face international opponents for the ultimate prize at the Olympics or the World Cup. Unity is fostered when ball clubs all over the world stack their rosters with players from all walks of life – regardless of race, creed or religion. Many of the world’s premier clubs have rosters with diverse shades of skin and foreigners making up about half the team.

Yet, ironically, bigotry is prominent in the sport and happens frequently in the soccer culture around the world. The amount of racism soccer players are subjected to from fans, their opponents and even their own organizations makes the picture of unity that FIFA has tried to paint of the game seem more like an amateur’s forgery.

Racism in Europe
For those who are unaware of this epidemic, a particularly shameful example occurred a week after Italy’s most storied soccer franchise, AC Milan, acquired star player Mario Balotelli on January 31, 2013. A news station caught AC Milan vice president Paolo Berlusconi and the brother of former Italian Prime Minister and AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi calling Balotelli “negretto della famiglia” or, in English, “the family’s little n——-.” Prior to this embarrassing event, Balotelli was welcomed by fans with bananas, monkey chants and phrases like “there are no black Italians,” even though the Ghanaian athlete had been raised in Italy since he was three.

In a separate January 3 incident featuring two other Ghanaian AC Milan players, Kevin Prince-Boateng and Sulley Muntari, opposing fans directed monkey chants at both footballers, prompting Boateng to kick the ball into the stands and walk into the locker room. Both ball clubs later followed his lead. After the game, Boateng complained, “It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve heard these things, but I’m 25 now and I’ve had enough of this bull—-.”

Striker for Dutch club AZ and the US National Team, Jozy Altidore, has also heard his fair share of racist taunts while playing in Europe. The second generation Haitian-American, raised in Boca Raton, had received interest from Lazio, an Italian soccer club with a reputation for having some of Europe’s most racist fans. Altidore acknowledged that racism in the sport is “a big problem, a problem that is more alive than people realize”, yet was almost excited at the opportunity to play in Italy. “I’m not saying Italy is a racist country, but it would be a good opportunity to take a stance. Italy is a stage.”

Racism elsewhere
While Italian racism in soccer has made the most headlines in 2013, racism in the sport is definitely not limited to the Boot of Europe. The Philippine national team and their fans were harassed in Hong Kong when the two teams faced each other in a friendly exhibition match. Hong Kong fans threw bottles at Philippine fans, called them slaves, booed their national anthem and threw debris at the Philippine national team after Hong Kong’s 0-1 defeat on June 4.

On April 14, 2005 in Argentina, Quilmes footballer Leandro Desabato was arrested and held in Brazil for 40 hours for racially abusing Grafite, a black Brazilian footballer. Grafite mercifully chose not to press charges. In 2006, fans of Mexican football team Santos Laguna imitated chimpanzee noises to taunt Panamanian player Felipe Baloy from C.F. Monterry when he scored a goal. The opposing fans also called Baloy a come platano (banana eater) and a chango (monkey). The Mexican Federation of Football set out to make a statement by fining Santos Laguna the equivalent of 5,600 days (15.33 years) of league minimum wage.

Sanctions against racism
Fortunately, in the wake of Boateng’s racist encounter, FIFA and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) have created harsher anti-racism sanctions, by threatening to fine, close stadiums, deduct points, or even demote a ball club to a lower division. Racism in soccer has been a huge problem since the sport began, but soccer’s governing bodies are only starting to take action against it now.

Team owners never used to worry about racism, so as long as butts were in the seats and the money kept rolling in. However, Boateng’s departure prompting both teams to leave that same January game shows owners that if racism isn’t taken care of, the players will cut revenue by stopping the game altogether.

Leaving the game sends a powerful message to fans and the league, but this strategy is not foolproof; leaving a competitive match like a UEFA Final would destroy that player’s reputation with fans and teammates.
UEFA fines for racism hover around 50,000 euros (roughly $65,300), and are really just slaps on the wrist for big soccer clubs. But, when combined with stadium closures, team relegations, and point deductions, these punitive actions show that people are finally starting to take racism in the sport seriously and take a step in the right direction.

Standing up to racism
UEFA also has a very close partnership with the Football against Racism in Europe (FARE) network. It is a network of 117 individuals, private organizations and national associations and clubs from all across the world who are committed to ending discrimination in European soccer and promoting its ability to facilitate unity. UEFA has supported the FARE network since 2001, and every October, all 40 UEFA club competitive matches display the teams being introduced alongside children wearing Unite Against Racism T-shirts. Team captains are required to Unite Against Racism armbands as well.

Hopefully, the effects of UEFA sanctions, FARE, and the players’ efforts will someday change the hypocritical façade of the world and humanity being “united by soccer” into a truthful image. “Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly” (John 7:24).

To learn more about FARE or to join their network, please go to farenet.org.

Jonathan Ebanks is a freelance writer. He can be reached at ebankj9770@gmail.com.

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