On this day in 1960 in Sharpeville, South Africa, 69 people were murdered by police because of the color of their skin. In memory of this and so many other tragedies that have happened due to hatred and discrimination, the United Nations declared March 21st the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This year, the UN are sponsoring an event to talk about “Racism and Sport,” to talk about both the damage inflicted on sport by racism as well as the potential for sport to help combat discrimination. Our very own Kevin Prince Boateng joins the legendary Edgar Davids and Patrick Veira in Geneva to weigh in on this important topic. The trouble with racism, though, is that there seem to be no clear cut answers as to how to solve it.
Racism is horrific, but for today, I want to focus on its place in Calcio. Racism is a particular problem in Italian football. Milan recently played a friendly at nearby Lega Pro Seconda Division (Serie C2) club Pro Patria in nearby Busta Arsizio. A few fans were shouting racist things at several of our players. Despite informing the referee and doing what they could to stop the abuse, it continued. Finally, frustrated, Kevin Prince Boateng kicked the ball into the stands. Captain Massimo Ambrosini went out onto the field and told the team to walk off the pitch. I have never been so proud of our team as I was in that moment. And it did not go unnoticed. The stand against racism gained worldwide attention, and a trip to Geneva today for Boateng. It also earned the Pro Patria club a hefty fine and a game played behind closed doors. Six fans of the club are also currently on trial on charges of racism. But none of this has really changed anything, it seems, as just weeks later, another incident involving Pro Patria’s players was reported by another team. Only when this lower division team walked off, it cost them a 3-0 loss to the abusing team. This score ended 1-1 in the battle of racism.
Consider the racist and abusive chants toward Balotelli by both Juventus and Inter fans… when they weren’t even playing Milan, or even playing in their own stadiums. Chievo Verona fans played host to these crimes from both teams, but they weren’t the only ones. Racists turn up anywhere and everywhere, even if they are more common in certain clubs’ fan bases. In fact, while in England, Balotelli would tell the press that the one thing he didn’t miss about Italy was the racial abuse. And he is as much or more Italian than those who abuse him. But in Italy, it’s not just a black and white issue. Many players, including the legendary Paolo Maldini, have been called “Zingaro” or “gypsy,” which is a racial slur and considered a big insult to people of certain Eastern European descent. And that is only one example.
Can you imagine doing the thing you love most and then being belittled and abused for something you cannot change, such as the color of your skin, or the place of birth of your grandparents? As a woman in the realm of football, I have been the victim many, many times of sexism, or as some men seem to think, not having the proper genitalia to have any proper knowledge of the sport. It sucks. But my perpetrators are only online, and technically, there is a medical process I could utilize to reassign myself to the "correct" gender for football fanship. It’s not like I am pelted with bananas or have monkey chants burning in my ears or have to see horrible banners while I run around for 90 minutes. It’s not like I have to wrestle with the concept of causing my team to lose three points or even a trophy if I walk off the pitch to try to salvage my dignity in front of tens of thousands of people.
So players abused with banners, insults, chants, fruit peltings, etc. play on amidst the horrors. Some channel the anger and do the best thing know how to do: punish the opposition fans with a win on the pitch. But you know, Balotelli is only one player. And if he is being abused at three different stadiums simultaneously, how does he stand up for himself? He shouldn’t have to. It is 2013 already. We really should have figured this out by now.
Growing up here in America and seeing the racial intolerance and horrific crimes of hatred throughout my nation’s history, it is painful to have this disease touch the beautiful game. Particularly Calcio. This past Sunday, Serie A hosted a campaign against racism by having banners displayed at every stadium and the captains of each team read a short statement prior to every match. The idea of education and awareness being the best tool to stop racism is a model from FIFA down to UEFA down to Serie A and probably elsewhere. Only banners, t-shirts, and reading statements haven’t changed anything. Ironically, a player getting frustrated and kicking a ball, then his team walking off and abandoning a friendly match has given more attention to racism than all of the organized efforts of these various football organizations.
But nothing has actually changed. Just a week ago, there was an incident involving Inter fans abusing Tottenham’s Emmanuel Adebayor. The Sunday prior to that saw more racist abuse of Balotelli and some of Juventus’ own players at Juventus stadium, who were facing Catania that day. In fact, blow up bananas held by fans are a regular image from Juventus and some other stadiums, and no one even talks about it. Not apples or grapes or any other fruit, just bananas. Because the implication is obvious enough for even the most Neanderthal of these fans to grasp. The Juventus organization has been more proactive about giving fans who display racist behaviors lifetime stadium bans this year. And yet they have been fined as much or more this year as any for racism. But the epidemic isn’t limited to one club, racism in Italy is a blight on its society.
Milan’s players took a stand, and hopefully more will in the future. However, I do believe that those with the most power to make a difference are we, the fans. If we read about these incidents and show indifference, then the racists win and our players lose. If we speak out about it and condemn the behavior through social media, in the stadiums, or anywhere we go, we can take the power away from the hands of the few and fill the stadiums and online forums with tolerance and unity in the name of the beautiful game. Not just for today, but for every day. I envision a Serie A where the only hatred is perhaps AC Milan against Inter, the way sport was intended. Where all players can enter the pitch and leave the pitch on the same level as one another, without being singled out for things they cannot change. What is your vision for Serie A? What do you think can be done that hasn’t been done yet to purge the beautiful game of racism?
I think the trouble with racism isn’t only the racists or the societies that breed this kind of hatred and intolerance. I think the trouble with racism is that we haven’t all banded together to let the few know that the majority are in control, and that the only intolerance we will allow is an intolerance for these primitive and hateful behaviors.
This post inspired by the courage of the thousands of players throughout the world who face racism on and off the pitch. You are unsung heroes.
Use your powers of social media today by using the UN’s Human Rights sanctioned hashtag #FightRacism