Racism: When the beautiful game turns ugly


Racism in soccer refers to the abuse of players, officials and fans because of their skin colour, nationality, religion or ethnicity. It is a serious problem in society; one that concerns everyone and affects sport ‑ particularly soccer since it is the most played sport in the world.

“Racism within the soccer world is unfortunately very real,” remarks Soccer Without Limits CEO and co-founder, Adam Davis.

The most well known altercation in recent years has come from Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, who was banned for several games due to racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. While the taunts came from one of the club’s soccer players, similar mistreatment has stemmed from the stands. 

A similarly infamous moment occured when Barcelona’s home-grown Sergio Busquets called a rival player, Marcello of Real Madrid, a ‘monkey’. Gaetano Iannini of Italy was given a 10-game ban for going after Ghanaian Caleb Ansah Ekuban. 

Perhaps the most peculiar case, though, is Italy’s extremely talented AC Millan striker Mario Balotelli. Balo, as he is affectionately known, was born and raised in Italy by Italian parents, but because he is Ghanaian by origin, has dealt with racism several times throughout the duration of his career. 

Former AC Millan midfielder, Ghana’s Kevin-Prince Boateng has also dealt with racist chants, though he was born and raised in Germany to a Ghanaian father and German mother. Boateng was the subject of racially discriminatory chants during a friendly match with a lower division Italian club, Pro Patria. 

The chants were so heinous that they prompted him and his AC Milan teammates, led by captain Massimo Ambrosini, to walk off the pitch during the middle of the game in protest. As a result, the match was abandoned.

It is critical to note that racism does not only affect players but it also damages the image of a club, putting the game of soccer into disrepute. It is also important to note that the issue of racism triggers so many questions.

Among them are: Why is racism still prevalent in the game in 2013? Has enough been done to combat it? And can it be exorcised completely? On why is racism still rampant in the game in 2013, it is important to note that the fact that the standardised continental measure for the elimination of racism in football has taken until 2013 for such harsh punishments to be put into place. It is proof enough of FIFA falling asleep at the wheel on the racism issue.

Furthermore, UEFA and FIFA’s dangerous ‘wait-and-see’ approach to the issue is worrisome. For instance, the main supporters group for Zenit St Petersburg in Russia once issued a statement on its website demanding the club not to sign black players. 

Rather than taking more proactive steps to discourage the incidents such as this one, UEFA and FIFA simply reacted to the media firestorm that followed the incidents by using a stop-gap to fix a larger problem.

More so, xenophobia is still an issue in soccer. This fear of the unknown is raising the prevalence of racism in some parts of the world. Blatantly racist chants, gestures, and signs directed at black players in top leagues across the continent are becoming a game-time norm. 

To combat racism, FIFA announced new measures to deal with racism in the sport in May 2013. FIFA recognises its responsibility to lead the way in abolishing all forms of discrimination in football. 

Article 3 of the FIFA Statutes provides: “Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”

The FIFA Disciplinary Code, which describes the sanctions incurred as a result of violations of the FIFA Statutes, applies to every match and competition organised by FIFA. 

Furthermore, the Disciplinary Code must be obeyed by all the associations and their respective members, including clubs, officials, players, match officials as well as any other persons FIFA admits to a match or competition, including spectators.

Since 2002, and following the 2001 Buenos Aires resolution to fight racism, the FIFA Anti-Discrimination Days have taken place at one of FIFA’s competitions every year to raise awareness of the need to abolish racism and other forms of discrimination worldwide. 

The activities during the FIFA Anti-Discrimination Days include a media briefing, a media release and a special pre-match protocol, at which the team captains read a declaration against discrimination. 

After the declaration, the teams and referees come together at the centre of the pitch showing a message to demonstrate football’s stance against discrimination. Involving the captains, teams and referees attracts the attention of the spectators in the stadium and on television, and allows FIFA to send an unequivocal message against discrimination.

To support FIFA’s efforts, UEFA, the head governing body of European Football is playing its part to eradicate racism from soccer with the introduction of an overarching, zero-tolerance resolution.

It 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 behaviour, among others. 

The severity of the guidelines and the targeted nature of the punishments signify drastically needed improvements for football on the continent. Importantly, UEFA punishments seem to target the most common instigators – the fans – by creating disincentives for them to continue such racially abusive behaviour.

To minimise and/or eradicate racism in football, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) must back FIFA’s efforts. The continent’s football governing body should also be dedicated to ending all forms of discrimination and promoting tolerance and fair play.

Racism in sports can be exorcised completely. The Daily Cardinal columnist, Matthew Kleist, states that ending racism in soccer has to start with the players. 

“The players have to be the ones to step forward and eliminate racism from the part of the game they have power over. That is, players need to end the racism against other players. “This effect would not be an immediate one, but the hope is fans will take players’ actions to mind and will follow suit,” notes Kleist.

Kleist goes on to say: “There is no way we can be certain fans will emulate players in regard to racism. But the way players are idolised in soccer communities, it leads one to believe most fans will. “And even if racism continues to be an issue among fans, eliminating it from the pitch is a step in the right direction.

“Players have to realize the position they are in and the power they hold. Their every action is watched and they must live up to the responsibility of becoming the role models against racism soccer needs right now.” Football federations across the world must continue to combat this evil both on and off the pitch, so that they can rid it off once and for all.

Racism is often a learned behaviour that begins from a young age and is magnified in group settings due to the mob mentality that arises in a stadium. Accordingly, 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 to combat racism. 



September 2013
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