For all of the stories available to the American media regarding the upcoming World Cup, there has been an almost singular focus among our sports media to bring the game into disrepute and give Americans who are not familiar with the sport more reasons to ignore it. That focus has been on European fan racism and the inability of FIFA, the game's governing body, to work with football federations across Europe to bring fan racism under control.
"Players and antiracism experts said they expected offensive behavior during the tournament, including monkey-like chanting; derisive singing; the hanging of banners that reflect neofascist and racist beliefs; and perhaps the tossing of bananas or banana peels, all familiar occurrences during matches in Spain, Italy, eastern Germany and eastern Europe.
'For us it's quite clear this is a reflection of underlying tensions that exist in European societies,' said Piara Powar, director of the London-based antiracist soccer organization Kick It Out. He said of Eastern Europe: 'Poverty, unemployment, is a problem. Indigenous people are looking for easy answers to blame. Often newcomers bear the brunt of the blame.'
-- Jere Longman, NY Times
The problem is very real and longstanding. In recent years, incidents of racist abuse from fans grabbed international headlines and raised questions about football's response to the problem of fans hurling racist abuse at players, primarily those who are African, but not exclusively so.
On November 17th, 2004 at a friendly match between Spain and England in Spain, Spanish fans begand taunting black English players by making monkey sounds everytime the players touched the ball. The game quickly became physical... (click the play button in the bottom left corner).
Then, on November 27, 2005, Messina of the Italian Serie A (or first division) were playing against Inter Milan in the famous San Siro stadium in Milan. Defender Marco Zoro, a Cote d'Ivoire international player (who will be playing in this year's World Cup) was showered with racist chants by Inter supporters and was reduced to tears on the pitch. Zoro grabbed the ball and intended to walk off the pitch until players surrounded him, most notably Brazilian international and Inter Milan star Adriano, and convinced him to play on.
Enough is enough: Marco Zoro attempts to leave the pitch on November 27, 2005
Then, on February 25, 2006, Barcelona star Samuel Eto, who is a Cameroon international, also decided that he had heard enough of the racist abuse when fans of Real Zaragoza showered him with peanuts and monkey chants...
But it isn't just the fans who are indicative of the problem. Last year, Lazio star Paolo Di Canio notoriously gave the facist salute to Lazio fans after his team's 3-1 win over local rivals AS Roma. The history of Lazio and the club's connection to facist leader Benito Mussolini do nothing to soften the implications of DiCanio's actions.
Paolo Di Canio gives a facist salute to the Lazio Ultras
There is simply no excuse. The racism among fans and a very few players needs an aggressive response from players, managers, officials, clubs and especially FIFA itself. Unfortunately, the excuses being made by officials about "the difficulty of the problem" have lead to very little movement in ending the abuse. And it has to stop.
But as an American fan of the game, I also am a little troubled by the way this important story has come to dominate media coverage of the sport in this country. The problem is not something that should be swept under the rug, it absolutely should be exposed and challenged, but in an era for the game in America when there is so much indifference and misinformation around, to see how the American press have picked up the story, spreading an intital AP story through small papers throughout the nation, placing it front and center on ESPN, it just screams to me of non-fans 'analyzing' the problems of the game in order to put it down and inspire people to turn it off.
But I'm torn. As defensive as I am of the game, I do see these incidents as somewhat isolated and reflective of individual morons who are using soccer's working class appeal to further their noxious political aims, I also think it is important to bring the reality of this problem to light here in America as it doesn't seem to be getting any serious attempt at a solution in Europe. Any exposure of the problem will hopefully bring shame to those who are guilty, and I certainly support that.
In the end, what troubles me the most is the 'high and mighty' approach of American journalists who are eager to seem enlightened about the horror of racism while seeking to turn the story of Richard Lester, the only African American NASCAR driver working today (and only the second in the history of the sport after race winner Wendell Scott), into a feel-good, uplifting story. Of course, the reality is that the good ol' boy exclusion of African American drivers in sport that has strong fan identification with its stars, is indicative a huge diversity problem that hardly ever gets talked about. Instead, NASCAR gets intense coverage on television while soccer is a third class citizen. How many rebel flags have to wave before someone points THAT finger? I guess money talks.
In the end, I am hopeful that the World Cup will be the incident-free celebration of the beautiful game that we all know it can be. The fact that the tournament is in Germany, a nation still dealing with the terrible legacy of both nazism and the cold war, only heightens feelings and stereotypes surrounding these issues. I hope that supporters of the game and new fans will join in the campaign to stamp out racism. But I also hope that those in the media will put fan racism in its proper context and that together, media and true football fans can unite to pressure FIFA and the national federations to bring this problem under control. Until then, I encourage all fans to have a zero tolerance policy for racism and let the cowards know how you feel. Stand up, Speak up. The game is ours.