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Backstory: Rubbing out racism

Christian Kabs works with German soccer fans to curb unruly behavior in the stands.

By Andreas TzortzisCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 2006



COTTBUS, GERMANY

Christian Kabs stands at the back of the visitor's section of the soccer stadium here, scanning the legions of Dresden Dynamo fans in their tapestry of yellow and black scarves. Mr. Kabs, a burly man in a hooded sweat shirt, isn't watching the action on the field, which is bogged down in a 0:0 tie between the Dynamos and their arch-rivals, FC Energie Cottbus. He's eyeing the people in the stands, looking for unruly behavior - principally, anyone yelling racial slurs. "It's good," says Kabs, wearing a baseball cap and John Lennon sunglasses, well into the game. "Pretty quiet so far."

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Kabs has to have one of the more unusual and difficult jobs in all of sports: He is, in essence, a hall monitor for fans. The sociologist spends his time trying to curb the behavior of some of Europe's most notoriously racist soccer enthusiasts.

As the relatively quiet game here shows - though the hundreds of riot police in the stadium might have something to do with it - Kabs and his colleagues at the Dresden "fan project" are believed to be having an impact. By all accounts, the racist chants and bouts of violence that were once a trademark of Dynamo games have decreased markedly in the past few years. "There's nothing comparable to them in the East [of Germany]," says Veit Pätzug, the author of a new book on Dynamo fans. "They're truly a pilot project."

The comments are encouraging at a time when Germany and the rest of Europe are grappling with racism both inside and outside their soccer stadiums. Indeed, a string of racist attacks against people of color in eastern Germany in the past month has shaken the country just days before it gets ready to host the high-profile World Cup.

Abuse directed at nonwhite players in Spain, Germany, and Italy during the past season has tarnished European soccer's gilded reputation and sent sports officials scrambling to respond. The Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the world governing body and organizer of the World Cup, was concerned enough that it introduced tougher measures to punish clubs and soccer associations that continue to ignore racism in their fan base. Significantly, the moves include fines and docked points against teams whose followers get too rowdy.

As is often the case in Europe, different countries are tackling the problem with different zeal. England has done the most in the past decade. The English Football Association (FA) has launched sensitivity campaigns, worked with courts to impose stadium bans on offending fans, and trained referees to know when to stop a match. A hot line lets fans call anonymously to report racist chants or abuse.

The situation in Italy and Spain is markedly different. Following threats by players to walk off the field in both leagues over the past season, critics expected more action. Instead, the Spanish FA president told a conference on racism not to "make a mountain out of a molehill." "The idea is that if you speak about racism, you will bring racism to the game," says Carlos Nuñez, director of the Spanish organization No Racismo. "It's as if they're not able to see racism is already there."

Germany's response has been as fractured as its recent history. Whereas clubs in the West have had success eradicating racism from the stands, East German soccer clubs are financially dependent on fan bases that often reflect the extremist thinking of larger society. Along with other cities in the East, Dresden has had to deal with virulent right-wing political factions since reunification. The stands at Rudolf-Harbig stadium have even served as a recruiting station for activists. Dynamo fans remember when it seemed the entire stadium was making jungle sounds every time a black player touched the ball. "You're much more anonymous in a stadium," says Marek Lange, a fan since 1991. "It's easier to join in when somebody around you starts making those sounds."

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