Can We Kick It? Why European Football Can't Shake Its Racist Image

Robert Collins

Other popular sports never confused loyalty and violence, and definitely never came with the promise of a punch up. Football became an excuse for whatever spleen venting was needed, and racist beliefs were among them.

Marcel Desailly / Chelsea

Over in Europe, social trends tend to move slowly. In the case of race relations in the sporting arena, there are plenty of fans still in the dark ages. Or, as many of them would probably prefer, the not so dark ages. European football spent much of 2004 cowering under well-aimed accusations that the game is intrinsically racist as, all over Europe, black players have been subject to enormous abuse from hostile crowds, aided and abetted by the attitudes of some central figures within the game itself.

A case in point would be the downfall of 'Big' Ron Atkinson, a well-respected TV analyst and ex-manager of Manchester United, who, after watching a lacklustre performance by the English team Chelsea against Monaco in the semi-final of the Champions League, correctly believed they'd blown their chances of reaching the final. He was particularly upset with defender Marcel Desailly, the French World Cup winner who he felt had performed with less than 100% effort. Five minutes after the game's conclusion and with his link to the UK broadcast terminated, Atkinson was still muttering to no one in particular about Desailly's disappointing display.

"He's what is known in some schools as a fucking lazy thick nigger," he declared, confident that his microphone had long been switched off.

Only it wasn't. Having been the voice of football for the majority of the English speaking Middle East, as well as the UK, Atkinson's unguarded comments reached into hundreds of homes across Dubai and Egypt. His resignation arrived the next morning. He hasn't worked since.

Shocking as Atkinson's outburst was, this was merely the 'got his comeuppance' comedy moment of an annus horribilis for European soccer. The latest, and perhaps most high profile, example of football-related racism came at the recent friendly game between Spain and England in Madrid, when Spanish fans continually made 'monkey noises' (not heard in the UK since the early 80s) whenever one of England's black players touched the ball. Sepp Blatter, chief of world football's governing body, FIFA, immediately declared his disgust, admitting that the England players would have been well within their rights to walk off the pitch. The situation wasn't helped by coming merely days after Spanish manager Luis Ar! agones, unaware he was mic'ed up during a training session, told striker Jose Antonio Reyes he was a better player than his team mate and "black shit" Thierry Henry.

It's not that football hasn't changed. Thirty years ago the generally accepted belief among the European football community was that black players simply didn't have the courage to succeed at the top level. Even as recently as the early '80s it was commonplace for gifted black players like England's John Barnes to experience monkey chanting and have bananas thrown at then while they played. Since then, clubs have made enormous efforts to root out their racist support, and it would be massively unfair to tar the entire football community with the tainted brush of the moronic minority. It's just that it now appears that that minority isn't as small as ev! eryone assumed.

Although European football never had a colour barrier that marred the history of American pro sports, the game is rooted in societies that were far from multi-cultural. In the UK, the first wave of Caribbean immigrants arrived in the early 1950s, with France opening its doors to inhabitants of its African colonies at the same time. Before then, the only black faces anyone would see in Europe were on cinema screens. By the 1970s, that first wave of immigrants' children had integrated themselves into the culture, and on the sporting field that meant the arrival of the first generation of black footballers. Like their parents before them, they received a frosty welcome, even culminating in bullets being sent through the post to players and the man! agers that selected them.

The tragedy was, no one was surprised. Football across Europe is rooted in working class culture. For over a century it's been the chosen opiate of the masses, getting the male half of the population through the drudgery of the week with the promise of vicarious glory every weekend. The players were from the same factories and dirty streets as the fans, and with that came a mutual respect that bred qualities like honour, loyalty, and the spirit of fair play. As such, it was easy for football to be used as a political tool of national unification, with the likes of Mussolini taking great pride in, and claiming much of the credit for, the Italian nation side's achievements through the 1930s.

The dark side of that working class culture materialised in the 1970s and '80s, as the growing spectre of hooliganism began rearing its head on a regular basis. Although portrayed by the likes of Saturday Night Live's Mike Myers as merely mindless thuggery, in reality the growing neo-fascist and nationalist organisations of Europe found willing recruits among the disillusioned hooligan youth searching for an identity every weekend. Other popular sports never confused loyalty and violence, and definitely never came with the promise of a punch up. Football became an excuse for whatever spleen venting was needed, and racist beliefs were among them.

The harsh reality is that football, more than any other cultural outlet, reflects European society. No one ever stands up and screams at the cinema screen, and other sports come with too many traditions of fair play and gentlemanly manners. Football is the one arena where irrational, tribal behaviour isn't just tolerated, but positively encouraged. As long as the abuse focuses on unsettling the opposition players and fans, it's all fair game.

Except racism. Football's diverse authorities, FIFA, UEFA and countless domestic leagues and associations knew that a line had to be drawn and, in the 1980s, they set up groups like Football Against Racism Europe (FARE) and Let's Kick Racism Out of Football. And although FIFA has levelled a £44,750 (roughly $83,000) at the Spanish Soccer Federation, there's only so much these groups can do. After all, it takes more than David Beckham in a Let's Kick Racism Out of Football T-shirt to make a bigot change his lifelong beliefs. Which is where football runs into a brick wall.

Unlike the major American sports, each of which has a domestic governing body with enough authority to lay down the law to offending parties, world soccer is a fragmented species with power, like the proverbial football, being kicked back and forth between FIFA, UEFA, and individual associations across the globe. The true power lies with the big clubs like Manchester United, Real Madrid, and AC Milan -- billion dollar corporations with millionaire employees answerable to no one except their shareholders (or in Milan's case, owner and Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi). What the big clubs say goes, and although all have been vigorous in their condemnation of racism (apart from Roman club Lazio, which openly courts its fascist and often violent supporters), it's not like any club is putting its money where its mouth is. Indeed, Lazio and Real Madrid have even had the audacity to appeal punitive fines levied against them for their fans' abusive behaviour. And, although every year a handful of fans are ejected from stadiums for racist abuse, teams cannot simply disenfranchise supporters they only suspect of harbouring racist beliefs.

The problem, quite clearly, lies as much with the individual societies of Europe as it does within football's billion-dollar corridors of power. Only a fraction of European cities have societies that could be described as anything other than multi-cultural, spawning people that, as Ron Atkinson would probably put it, aren't necessarily racist, but aren't averse to an occasional lapse of political incorrectness either. Although the far right remains a problem for football, educating casual racists remains the key to eradicating its spectre from its stadiums.

Even if its governing bodies were powerful enough to throw the book at offenders, football is in no position to cast the first stone. The problems within the game -- backhanders on trade deals, sex and drug scandals, continual (and widely accepted) cheating on the pitch -- has left racism way down the list of priorities. Despite more money being in the game then ever before, it is all concentrated in the bank accounts of the big clubs. In a world where $30 million transfer fees have become commonplace, there's little left over to mount cohesive anti-racism campaigns.

But perhaps hope is on the horizon. Disgusted by his own fans' racist chanting at FC Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o during a recent Spanish league match, Getafe president Angel Torres suggested that his team take the field at their next home game with blackened faces. Although this Al Jolson look was soon (and wisely) rejected, it was a rare stand by those within the game to pay more than lip service to the problem. The sooner that football can take the moral high ground, the sooner it can make a positive impression on the society it reflects. Whether the rest of Europe is willing to take such bold strokes remains to be seen.

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