Many fans use football as an escape from their everyday struggles. They clear their minds with pure spectacle, find awe in players’ varying levels of mastery and develop comfort in club comradery and allegiance. For fans, football is a means to achieve relaxation, joy, solace and excitement. But for many non-white players, football is often a channel for racial abuse. Sports bring people together – that’s why people love them – but that togetherness can also embolden individuals to say or do things they might not normally say or do, like express racially-charged sentiments towards players. With divisive and hateful rhetoric emanating throughout the modern political realm, its no surprise that racism has made its presences felt in stadiums throughout Europe and the rest of the football world.
In line with history, recent acts of racism in football have come in brutal form. In January 2013, fifty or so fans of Pro Patria, a small Italian club, shouted monkey noises at Ghana-born AC Milan player Kevin-Prince Boateng during a match. After more than forty minutes of direct verbal abuse, Boateng picked up the ball, kicked it into the stands, and walked off the pitch. In April 2014, Barcelona’s Dani Alves had a banana thrown at him by a Villarreal supporter. Alves picked up the banana, peeled it and ate it. In 2017, a group of fans at a game between FK Rad and Partizan Belgrade, two Serbian clubs, held up a racist banner and directed monkey sounds towards Partizan and Brazilian player Everton Luiz. When Partizan supporters joined in on the chants, Luiz was left in tears.
While these incidents are quite blatant in their intents, racism has also appeared in more subliminal forms. In July 2018, Mesut Özil, a star (of Turkish origin) on the German national team, retired due to racism, writing [about the head of the German Football Association and his supporters] “…I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”
As can be understood by the words and actions of the aforementioned players, frustration from blatant and subliminal racism can be communicated in different ways. Manchester City star Raheem Sterling has decided to use his global platform to re-invigorate the fight against racism.
In December 2018, Sterling posted about two Daily Mail articles, one which ravaged a young black footballer for buying his mom a house, the other which praised a young white player, on the same team, for doing the same thing. The post sheds light on how easily the media can contort the perceptions of players:
“…I think this is unacceptable, both [are] innocent have not done a thing wrong but just by the way it has been worded. This young black kid is looked at in a bad light, [w]hich helps fuel racism and aggressive behavior… for all the newspapers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all I have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity and give all players an equal chance.”
In April 2019, Sterling furthered his stance, suggesting that teams should have nine points deducted for racist abuse and that they should have to play three games behind closed doors to they lose revenue as a direct consequence of racist behavior: “It sounds harsh but which fan will risk racist behavior if it might relegate their team or ruin their title bid?”
Sterling deserves all the praise he is receiving for his brave remarks and brainstorming, but the question now becomes will football institutions listen? The media and unwelcome stadiums alike have helped perpetuate the cycle of racist abuse in global football. The message of anti-racism will have to come from the top if we truly hope to see change and acceptance in the football world going forward.