Racism On the Soccer Field Must End Before It Kills the Sport

ByAndré Akpan

Imagine it’s Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. You’re in the cauldron that is Madison Square Garden and Lebron James is on the free throw line as the Miami Heat take on the New York Knicks. The fans are screaming as they try to break Lebron’s concentration, but instead of the standard boos and whistles, all you hear are monkey chants filling the arena; a banana peel is even thrown on to the court as fans resort to blatant racism to distract the NBA All-Star.

Such is the problem that much of European soccer faces on a near-weekly basis, most notably in Italy and much of Eastern Europe. Blatantly racist chants, gestures, and signs directed at black players in top leagues across the continent are becoming a game-time norm. Fortunately, two weeks ago, European football took a major step forward in its quest to eradicate racism from the sport with the introduction of an overarching, zero-tolerance resolution by UEFA, the head governing body of European Football. Just a week later, FIFA, the governing body of world football, released its own resolution, pushing many of the same anti-racism strategies. While the measures passed in these resolutions present significant concrete improvements, two questions remain: What took so long? And will it work?

On May 24, President Michel Platini and other top UEFA officials gathered in London for the XXXVII Ordinary UEFA Congress; their main agenda focused on developing a resolution that would lead to the complete elimination of racism from football. Through the resolution, UEFA established much needed rules and punishments for racist incidents occurring in UEFA-sponsored matches, including the power of referees to temporarily suspend or cancel matches in which racial chants occur, a minimum 10 match ban for players or team officials found guilty of racial abuse, and partial or full stadium closures for teams whose fans continue racist behavior, among others. The severity of the guidelines and the targeted nature of the punishments signify drastically needed improvements for football on the continent. These punishments finally seem to target the most common instigators — the fans — by creating disincentives for them to continue such racially abusive behavior.

Yet how can we be fully satisfied with a standardized continental measure for the elimination of racism in football when it has taken until the year 2013 for such harsh punishments to be put into place? Racism in the sport, especially in Europe, is by no means a new occurrence. Aggravators have been testing the wits of black players for the better part of the last century. This dates back to the early 20th Century when (the few) black players in England such as Walter Tull were subjected to racist commentary from fans. Yet nearly 100 years later, we are only now seeing appropriate measures put into place. This slow, seemingly lazy approach to eliminating an incredibly serious issue reflects poor leadership within the top governing bodies of world football and its lack of importance as a top priority to these leaders.

The timing of the resolution is proof enough of UEFA and FIFA falling asleep at the wheel on the issue. Racist behavior in European football has lingered for much of this decade, but has really shot to the forefront of issues with increased racist activity recently. UEFA and FIFA’s "wait-and-see” approach to the issue is what is most worrisome. UEFA’s push for a new resolution comes off the heels of this heightened period of racially abusive incidents. Consider the last six months alone, during which we have seen an unheard of number of incidents of racial abuse. In January, AC Milan player and Ghanaian international, Kevin-Prince Boateng was the subject of racially discriminatory chants during a friendly match with a lower division Italian club. Their chants were so heinous that they prompted him and his AC Milan teammates to walk off the pitch during the middle of the game in protest.

Fellow AC Milan player Mario Balotelli, a naturalized Italian of Ghanaian descent, was also on the receiving end of racist chants during matches at Inter Milan in February and at AS Roma last month. Last December, the main supporters group for defending champion Zenit St. Petersburg in Russia issued a statement on its website demanding that the club not sign black or gay players. Rather than taking more proactive steps to discourage the incidents such as those in recent months, UEFA and FIFA simply reacted to the media firestorm that followed the incidents by using a stop-gap to fix a larger problem.

Ultimately, I can’t help but wonder if using punishment to discourage is even an effective tool to combat racism in the football. Because racist culture is inherently an issue of larger social magnitude than football alone and because it represents cultural values that are attached to the society and upbringing of those involved, it is difficult to remove it from football with strictly football-related punishment.

Racism is often a learned behavior that begins from a young age and is magnified in group settings due to the mob mentality that arises in a stadium of drunk fans. Thus, the idea that one or two game stadium closures will deter such ingrained behavior is possibly short-sighted. It will take a much larger societal initiative that promotes acceptance of others and skin color-blindness from an early age, allowing people to take these values into other areas of life such as football. While football can be a significant platform to help educate and generate awareness of important issues amongst the broader society, it requires a deeper cultural change to eliminate a deep-rooted institution like racism, a task that I believe is simply too large for ten match bans and stadium closures to handle.