Soccer slide-tackles racism

FIFA to send out antiracism ambassadors, including Pelé.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Fans wave swastikas, coaches denigrate black players, and teams are forced to play before empty stadiums because of unruly crowds.

A year before soccer's World Cup is due to kick off in Germany, concerns are growing that Pelé's "beautiful game" is being marred by racism. As a result, soccer authorities, athletes, and sponsors in South America, Europe, and Asia are looking for ways to improve crowd and player behavior before the sport's reputation is permanently damaged.

Soccer officials have long kept their eye on the sport's worst "hooligans" - disruptive fans who often drink heavily and try to incite violence before, during, and after matches. During the 2002 World Cup, the host nations, Korea and Japan, sent dozens of known troublemakers back to their home countries. Now officials are focusing on acts of racism.

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Here in South America, the issue received renewed attention last month when Leandro Desabato, an Argentine defender with the Quilmes club team, was detained by Brazilian police after making derogatory remarks toward the player known as Grafite, a black Brazilian player.

Less than a week later, fans watching a club match in the city of Cordoba, Argentina, were seen waving flags with swastikas on them. Argentina has a large Jewish population.

But according to antiracism activists, recent events go beyond a handful of unruly and intoxicated fans.

"Hooligans and racism have traditionally always been linked," says Leon Mann of Kick It Out, a British organization dedicated to eliminating racism in soccer. "But it would be naive to assume that this is a problem caused exclusively by skinhead hooligans. [These days], racist chants can be heard by a range of different supporters - young, old, rich and poor."

Kick It Out is part of a network of nine organizations with contacts in 35 countries calling itself Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE). Funded in part by national soccer organizations and players' associations, FARE is trying to raise awareness and to change attitudes.

Among antiracism activists, Spain, Italy, and Eastern Europe are often singled out as the worst bastions of racist crowd behavior. They cite, for example:

• Spain's national coach, Luis Aragonés, was recently heard using a racial epithet during a World Cup qualifier against Belgium. Spain's soccer federation fined Mr. Aragonés 3,000 euros ($3,850).

• In November, black English players were mocked with racist chants by fans during a match with Spain, prompting British Prime Minister Tony Blair to protest the treatment to Spanish officials.

• In the Netherlands, anti-Semitic chants by a group of Dutch fans against referee Rene Temmick led to the cancellation of a game in progress between club teams PSV Eindhoven and Den Haag.

FIFA, soccer's international governing body, condemns these and other incidents. In 2001, the organization began to require soccer organizers to refuse admission to fans who take part in racist acts or violence, and ordered coaches and clubs to "impose effective punishment" on players who indulge in racist behavior.

More recently, FIFA announced plans to create a group of antiracism "ambassadors." A FIFA spokesman said that the group's activities are still being defined but that they will be led by Thierry Henry, a black player on France's victorious 1998 World Cup team and one of Europe's top soccer stars. He will likely be joined by Pelé, the former Brazilian star.

Mr. Henry, currently playing for Britain's Arsenal team, has criticized the fine against Aragonés as "laughable" and helped persuade his sponsor, Nike, to undertake an awareness campaign dubbed "Stand Up, Speak Out" in Europe.

In addition to television ads featuring European soccer stars, the campaign has created a black and white interlocking wristband which it is selling through European sports retailers. The money raised will be distributed by an independent foundation to support anti-racism projects and initiatives.

Europe's soccer federation, UEFA, has also gotten involved, fining teams in Britain, the Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, and Hungary for racism-related issues in recent years. The league has even forced some teams to play games in empty stadiums as punishment for racist crowd behavior. Earlier this year, the federation sponsored a conference in Slovakia to examine discrimination against Roma, or gypsies, in Eastern Europe.

Can soccer contribute to solving a much more general problem in a society?" asks William Gaillard, a spokesman for UEFA. "That's the question we're asking ourselves. We don't know the answer, but we're trying."

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