The illusion of social progress often attributed to Europe has been steadily challenged by a number of racist incidents in the arena of European soccer. Though this is not a new phenomenon (and is certainly not confined to Europe), a recent slew of fan abuse toward players of color will hopefully compel soccer institutions to get serious about the problem.
Last month in the Netherlands, a match had to be suspended for 10 minutes following verbal abuse directed toward Excelsior Rotterdam’s Ahmad Mendes Moreira by a section of Den Bosch fans. Like elsewhere in Europe, such behavior is not new. In 2015, Dutch team Feyenoord was fined by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) when a large inflatable banana was thrown at an A.S. Roma player.
Over in Germany, Arsenal midfielder Mesut Özil, whose parents are Turkish, decided to retire from playing for Germany last year due to racist abuse from German fans. He describes hearing slurs after games, reading them online, and being shunned from the spotlight. “I am German when we win, but an immigrant when we lose,“ he said in a New York Times article. More recently, at the beginning of this season with Arsenal, he was the victim of a carjacking in London.
In the English Premier League, racist abuse was directed toward Manchester United players Jesse Lingard and Fred during their match over the weekend against Manchester City at Etihad Stadium. Fred, a Brazilian midfielder, says he has faced abuse before in England, as well as in Ukraine. Water bottles and lighters were thrown at the visitors, but the most reprehensible attack came from 41-year-old British army veteran Anthony Burke.
Burke is accused of directing monkey gestures and noises toward Fred. He later posted on Facebook, “Listen, I’m only racist c*** because I had a screenshot that made me look it. However I ain’t racist, watch the match half of it was me with me putting my hands in my pants.” However, video from the match supports evidence of racist gestures, as Burke’s hands found little success in reaching his pockets during his shouting.
As Özil observed, “Unfortunately, racism is no longer only a right-wing issue in the country. It has shifted into the middle of society.” Behavior that once would have been shunned or discouraged has been more than tolerated recently, and many in Europe no longer feel inhibited from spouting racist and ultra-right-wing rhetoric. This is especially the case in Italy, where the neo-fascist Forza Nuova party enjoys increasing popularity.
Last Friday, Italian tabloid newspaper Corriere dello Sport published a controversial headline that read “Black Friday,” and featured two black soccer players from Italy’s upcoming Serie A match between Inter Milan and A.S. Roma.
Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku, one of the players, has already faced repeated instances of racist chants. Additionally, one TV commentator was dismissed for describing that the only way to stop Lukaku is to “give him 10 bananas to eat.”
Brescia striker Mario Balotelli has been a lightning rod for abhorrent racist abuse throughout his career. Last month, Balotelli threatened to walk off the pitch in a match against Hellas Verona after hearing racist chants comparing him to a monkey.
Balotelli was born to Ghanaian parents in Palermo, but was raised by a Jewish Italian family. Despite being an Italian citizen and recording 36 goals for the Italian national team, he faces abuse because he can “never be fully Italian,” according to the head of Verona’s “ultra” fan group.
Brescia president Massimo Cellino did not make matters better for his player when he shrugged, “What can I say? That he’s black and he’s working to whiten himself but he has great difficulties in this.”
Balotelli sums up the issue succinctly, saying, “I am not saying that I am different from the other players who receive the same abuse, the same monkey noises, but the problem is that I am Italian.”
In France, the issue of claiming black soccer stars is even more complicated, with 15 of the 23 players on France’s 2018 World Cup team tracing their heritage to Africa. France, which famously touts itself as a color-blind society with egalitarian principles, does not record race, ethnicity, or religion in its census.
Yet, France faces high levels of discrimination, and the country’s alleged color-blindness covers up social issues, rather than eliminating them in the name of unity. While names such as Pogba and Mbappe may be celebrated across France, many French citizens of color face abuse. On amateur French teams, this is all too common. In May 2018, Kerfalla Sissoko and two teammates reported they had been physically beaten by another team during a match.
Though this blatant racism shows no signs of declining, some steps have been taken to promote at least a semblance of accountability. In the Netherlands, all matches were paused for a minute a couple of weeks ago to show screens with the message, “Racism? Then we won’t play.”
UEFA has unveiled public awareness programs, such as “No to Racism,” a campaign that began in 2016.
In Italy, Milan and Roma persuaded every Series A club to sign an open letter admitting that Italian soccer faces a significant issue with racism and calling for a comprehensive anti-racism policy.
“Italian football has been soft on racism for far too long and that is not something we are prepared to accept any more,” said Paul Rogers, chief strategy officer for Roma. “... In 2019 it shouldn’t need a football club to tell anyone that making monkey noises or racist comments to black players is unacceptable.”
This recognition is refreshing, but in order to reverse unfortunate societal trends, this accountability and call to action must extend far beyond Europe’s soccer stadiums.