The holiday season is observed differently by sports fans in different parts of the world. While here in the USA we focus on college football bowl games, NBA Christmas games and the tail end of the NFL season, the majority of the soccer leagues around the world tend to go on a Christmas/winter break. I say the majority because the Premier League doesn’t take a break. But for most of the leagues across Europe, play is stopped until after the New Year. This creates a situation where teams have to schedule the occasional friendly game to keep players fresh and fit until the season kick starts again.
It was during one of these friendlies that the following scene unfolded: AC Milan, one of Italy’s and Europe’s biggest clubs, was playing an away friendly against Pro Patria, a club in the fourth division of Italian soccer – think the Red Sox playing some single-A minor league team. As the game went through its initial phases, chants of a racist nature – likely monkey chants – emanated out of a section of the crowd towards Kevin-Prince Boateng, the Ghanian-German midfielder that plays for Milan, and other black teammates. By the 26th minute, Boateng had had enough. He picked up the ball, kicked it at the section where the chants were emanating from and, disgusted with their actions, walked off the pitch. Some Pro Patria players tried to convince him to stay, but he was inconsolable. Massimo Ambrosini, the captain of Milan, seeing Boateng’s reaction turned and led the rest of the team off the pitch. The referee, having no choice, called the game off. As the players left the field, the majority of the fans in the stadium applauded the players while booing the section of racists fans that had cost them the game. The incident can be viewed here if you want.
The immediate reactions have been twofold: praise for Boateng’s decision to not take the abuse and scorn for the section of Pro Patria players who abused Boateng. Black players from across the continent took to Twitter to applaud Boateng for his courage. The heads of various anti-racism campaigns used the opportunity to once again point out how little the game’s governing powers have done to combat racism in the stadiums. The Italian FA has vowed to investigate the matter fully. In the days after, Boateng stated he would reconsider his career’s future in Italy while vowing to do so again even if the stakes were higher than a simple friendly. Meanwhile, two of Milan’s latest legends, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso, questioned Boateng’s actions – Seedorf questioning the value of walking off the pitch as it gave the racists power over the game and Gattuso over whether those were racists chants that Boateng heard at Pro Patria.
This is, sadly, only the latest incident to bring European soccer and racism together. There was the Zenit St Petersburg supporters’ group statement that they preferred their club fielded only local, Russian players and not black players. There was the Serbia vs England U-21 match, where Serbian fans racially abused black English players – UEFA’s punishment towards Serbia was a 65,000 pound fine and a match to be played behind closed doors. There was the year-long row between Chelsea’s John Terry and QPR’s Anton Ferdinand – in which Terry was said to have racially abused Ferdinand during a game. The legal drama ended up sucking in every aspect of English soccer – players, referees, officials, supporters, etc. There was the Luis Suarez vs Patrice Evra racial spat – Suarez was alleged to have used racial insults at Evra which caused an eight-game ban for Suarez.
The problem is that the game’s governing bodies – UEFA for Europe and FIFA globally – would rather it all go away on its own rather than tackle the problem with any serious measures. Fines of less than 100,000 pounds, the occasional closed-doors game, statements by team captains ahead of games and supporting anti-racism campaigns with the most minimum of efforts. These are the measures that the sports’ governing bodies are willing to use. Anything more – anything that would require they get involved in comprehensive solutions – is anathema to them. It’s not surprising why. To put in harsher measures would force them to ban national teams, major stars or even member nations out of competitions. That could result in missing millions in euros, pounds and dollars from lost TV rights, sponsorship deals and fans buying tickets to tournaments and events. And it would set a precedent that they would have to follow if major soccer nations like England or Spain engage in similar actions. Far easier to imagine that a simple handshake can end racism, as FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter stated during the Terry-Ferdinand fiasco.
All of this leaves players out on their own to solve this situation. The fear with walking out, as Seedorf stated, is that fans of teams that are losing a critical game could use the impetus of walking off to influence a game. Say your side is losing a Champions League game to Manchester United 3-1 with 10 minutes to go. Far easier to start making monkey chants at Antonio Valencia or Ashley Young in the hopes that, by forcing them to walk off the pitch, the referee would have no choice but to award the game to your team. At least, that’s how the line of thinking goes.
However, such thinking ignores the fact that referees can call off games without being automatically forced to award it. As we saw when Fabrice Muamba suffered his heart attack during a Tottenham-Bolton game, the referee was able to stop the game, get the players off the pitch and allow for the more important situation to be resolved. The game was played at a later date, when players were not influenced by their worry for their teammate. Likewise, there’s rules already that, if players or referees are physically harmed or threatened by the fans via thrown missiles or people running onto the field of play, the referee can stop the game, get everyone away and either allow for the authorities to sort out the situation before continuing or end the game, awarding it to the team that had the lead. So, the idea that racist fans could use their racism to get an easy win could be entirely avoided by extending those rules to these instances.
My hope is that Kevin-Prince Boateng’s actions this week act as the catalyst for players to finally take charge of this problem. The racists aren’t going to change on their own. Neither are the higher powers. Change has to be forced upon them. Power lies in the hands of the players to effect that change. But it cannot be just one man walking off. It has to be teams en masse, showing solidarity for their black teammates and opponents walking off the pitch and away from the racists. It has to be the same as the Pro Patria supporters, who booed and jeered the racists for costing them their game.
Imagine the power to influence the next generations when kids ask why their game’s heroes are not playing. Imagine how that forces adults to acknowledge and explain the stupidity of racism to them. Imagine the pressure on FIFA and UEFA when their broadcast partners are forced to spend their postgame shows on why they didn’t have a game instead of showing highlights – Sky Sports and ESPN and Fox Soccer showing the images over and over around the globe.
Kevin-Prince Boateng’s disgusted march can be the spark that lights that fire. But only if others are willing to be just as brave and just as willing to face the consequences when the stakes get higher and higher. Ironically, the powers that be are more likely to put on hefty fines and suspensions against the players that walk to avoid the black eyes that those images would give them. As I said, doing this would require courage.
But what is the cost of doing nothing?