In 1996, after France narrowly defeating Bulgaria to move on from the group stages of the European Cup competition, the French defender Marcel Desailly made a striking accusation during a press conference. Hristo Stoichkov, the star Bulgarian striker, had racially abused him during the game. “Hey Desailly, do you know that little kids are dying of hunger in your country,” Desailly claimed Stoichkov had said to him on the pitch during one of a number of heated entanglements. And then he added: “Shitty country, shitty blacks, shitty skin.”
Desailly was born in Ghana but grew up in comfortable circumstances with his mother and a French step-father. As he writes in his autobiography, Stoichkov’s comments ultimately had an awakening effect on him, driving him to reconnect with Ghana after years of relative distance. But his public accusation against Stoichkov was itself both a courageous and relatively rare thing: this was not something black players did in the 1990s in the midst of major tournaments. And there was in fact little result: the UEFA did nothing to Stoichkov — who when confronted by Desailly after the match had refused to apologize and said “I believe what I said.” The incident was, in any case, soon overshadowed by a larger racial scandal, when far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen famously attacked his national team — which included Desailly, Lilian Thuram, Christian Karembeu, and Zinedine Zidane — of being composed of “foreign players” and “fake Frenchmen” who didn’t know the words to the Marseillaise, or else refused to sing it if they did. The comments incited a wave of criticism from the players, politicizing many of them, as well as from politicians and media figures in France. Though France didn’t win the Euros that year, the tournament ended up setting the stage for the 1998 World Cup in at least two ways: it helped solidify the team, but it also transformed it into a symbol of multi-cultural France and made supporting Les Bleus a form of anti-racism activism for many. (This is a story I tell in some detail in my book Soccer Empire).
Eighteen years later, another European Cup begins, and once again the question of race, nation, and sport are center stage. This time the story is beginning in a very different way: thanks in large part to a controversial BBC show about Ukraine and Poland called “Stadiums of Hate,” there has been wide-spread concern about the presence of racist, anti-semitic — and violent — fan groups in the countries hosting the Cup this year. Sol Campbell urged English fans to stay away from the Euro, and others have made similar warnings. In response, Polish and Ukrainian authorities have decried the BBC show as extremely partial, focusing on a marginal phenomenon, and tried to reassure everyone that there will be no problems during the tournament. But yesterday members of the Dutch team, having just returned from a visit to pay homage at Auschwitz, were greeted by monkey calls by a group of Polish fans as they practiced, prompting Van Bommel to warn that the team would leave the pitch if this happened during a game. Mario Balotelli, meanwhile, has already threatened to do the same.
Will the players do it? Many people are hoping they will. In a recent interview I did with Lilian Thuram, he insisted that if players — and all players, not just black players — banded together and refused to play as long as racism of any kind was tolerated in the stadium then the federations would very quickly act to solve the problem. But UEFA President Michel Platini has announced that if Balotelli or anyone else walks off because of racial abuse, they’ll get a yellow card. It will be up to the referees, not the players, to decide whether the situation in the stands merits and end to the game.
If we take a step back from all of this, there’s a fascinating set of historical shifts at work. It wasn’t all that long ago, after all, that many European countries dreaded the arrival of English fans, who were notorious for right-wing affiliations and violent behavior. In one incident among many, during the 1998 World Cup fans of the England team, in Marseille for a game against Tunisia, rampaged through the center of town beating up people they saw as North African, as well as attacking a beach in the middle of the day and beating up families picnicking ocean-side. The problem of English “hooliganism” was in fact a pan-European obsession throughout the 1980s and 1990s — producing among perhaps it’s signal literary expression in Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs (a brilliant work of that is part embedded ethnography journal part journey to self-realization as thug). Monkey noises, bananas thrown on the pitch, neo-nazi symbols, brutal beatings and killings — it was all there, and it was thoroughly English in many European’s eyes. Now, some decades on, the English are leading the charge in criticizing the Ukranians and Poles for their unruly and violent fans, and it’s not surprising that some of the accused have had their hackles raised by the process.
At the same time, of course, the reality is that in England — precisely because of the magnitude of the problem — is now home to what is probably the most aggressive and committed program of action against racism in football in Europe. This year alone has seen two major cases involving racism on the pitch, and indeed what England captain John Terry has to look forward to after the Euros is being put on trial for racial harassment — which does make the English a bit of an easy target for accusations of hypocrisy. There have been arrests for racist tweets and programs through which fans can warn officials about racist chants they hear.
Of course, one way to interpret this is to insist the England still has as much of a problem with racism in football as the Ukraine and Poland do. But that would be a bit too easy: for it is true that today the kinds of anti-semitic, neo-Nazi, and racist banners and symbols that were clearly visible in stadium crowds shown on the BBC would rarely if ever be tolerated by officials in an English stadium. And in Italy, Holland, Spain and France the situation — while far from perfect — is also very different from what it was even a decade ago.
Underneath all this, of course, is a broader set of intricate tensions about Europe itself: after all, Eastern European immigration to Western Europe is a major phenomenon, and while such immigrants are not generally stigmatized quite as harshly as those from Africa and Asia, there are clearly social and cultural tensions that subtend all of this. (During one political campaign in France, just as an example, the threat of the “Polish plumber” who was to come and steal the jobs of perfectly competent “French plumbers” was bandied about). While it’s often difficult to trace the connections between such broader social phenomenon and football, they should not be disregarded as part of the current story — and one of the reasons the whole question has created so much tension, accusation, and counter-accusation.
Every international football tournament brings scrutiny to host countries — recall the extensive worried hair-rending surrounding the problem of security in South Africa (which turned out to be largely a non-issue), or simply look to the various panics surrounding whether Brazil will be “ready” for 2014. But to my knowledge — and I may well be overlooking cases here — the question of racist and anti-semitic fans as the major problem for a host is a new phenomenon. (The most dangerous thing about South African fans, it seemed, was the vuvuzela). And within Europe’s contemporary political landscape — as well as the landscape of European football — it needs to be taken seriously. The defense that racist and anti-semitic fans are a fringe group is an old one: the same was, rightly, said by those decrying the depictions of English “hooliganism” in the 1980s and 1990s. But the question of their presence, and their impact on the field of play, is as relevant as it ever has been.
What has changed since 1996? At once a lot — and too little. The intense scrutiny about racism in football is testament to the success of the actions taken by players such as Desailly, Lilian Thuram, and Thierry Henry — who responded to racial epithets directed at him by Spanish national team coach Luis Aragonès by partnering with Nike to launch an anti-racism campaign. But it’s striking how relevant the message of this campaign remains.
What players like Mario Balotelli — as well as Lilian Thuram, from a retirement he has devoted to anti-racist activism and education — are saying is that a more militant approach may be needed. After years of football federations and FIFA carrying out extensive public campaigns against racism in football, it can still emerge to haunt one of the sport’s most important international tournaments. It may turn out that all the sound and fury about this will turn out to have been misplaced. Perhaps the small groups of Ukranian and Polish fans foregrounded in “Stadiums of Hate” are truly a fringe, and they will be successfully kept out of the stadium — and away from visiting fans whose physical appearance might not please them — during the next month. Let’s hope that is the case. But if it is not, it may be politically and historically necessary for players to force the issue, as some have threatened to do. And, especially if action is taken in full solidarity — so that it is not presented as a problem facing black players, but rather as one affecting all players — it might make an important difference. Balotelli certainly loves to court controversy, but his matter-of-fact approach to the issue is refreshing. After all, in what other profession would those in charge simply tell people to deal with it if people racially harass them while they are working? Players have the right to wonder: how long do we have to wait?