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'Mentally in primary school': Racism in Balkan football

March 27, 2019

England players Danny Rose, Raheem Sterling and Callum Hudson-Odoi became the latest victims of racism in Balkan football this week. But authorities in the region still have trouble even acknowledging the problem.

England's Danny Rose was the target of racial abuse
Image: picture-alliance/SOLO Syndication/A. Hooper

Danny Rose and Raheem Sterling had heard it all before.

In October 2012, Tottenham Hotspur defender Rose, then on loan at Sunderland, had been subjected to monkey chants throughout England under-21's victory over Serbia in Krusevac before being shown a red card for kicking the ball into the stands in anger. Manchester City forward Sterling had come on as a substitute that night, aged just 17.

On Monday night in Podgorica, the capital of neighboring Montenegro, the pair discovered that little has changed in the region in the intervening six years as they were again forced to endure racist abuse aimed at them and young teammate Callum Hudson-Odoi during and after a 5-1 England win.

“It’s a real shame to be coming somewhere to be reminded of what skin color you are, or what you resemble," said Sterling, who cupped his ears in the direction of the Montenegrin fans after scoring England's fifth goal. "I know what color I am. It’s just a shame that some people think it’s cool to make fun of you for it."

Racism is 'normal'

Since the break up of the former Yugoslavia, racism in Balkan football has become all too common. Just months before Rose and Sterling's experience in Serbia as teenagers, Croatian fans had thrown bananas in the direction of Italy's Mario Balotelli during the European Championships in Poland.

In 2017, Partizan Belgrade's Brazilian midfielder Everton Luiz left the pitch in tears after suffering 90 minutes of racist abuse from fans of FK Rad. Partizan coach Marko Nikolic lamented the fact that the incident was so "normal in Serbian football," but such acknowledgements are the exception rather than the rule.

Rassistischer Missbrauch gegen Mittelfeldspieler Everton Luiz
All too common: Racist abuse reduced Partizan Belgrade midfielder Everton Luiz to tearsImage: Getty Images/AFP/STR

All too often, fans, coaches, officials, police and politicians across the region turn a blind eye to racism, denying or downplaying its existence as Montenegrin FA representatives initially did following Monday's incident, despite the evidence to the contrary.

"They don't grasp how they can be accused of racism when there are hardly any other races in their society. They can't accept that," explains Damir Pilic, a former ultra at Croatian club Hajduk Split. "If they're losing against a stronger opponent, they just see it as a tool to humiliate an opponent who has humiliated them. But if you ask them after the match if they are racist, they'll deny it.

"From a western perspective, it's a paradox. But when it comes to racism, many people in the Balkans are still mentally in primary school. We hardly have any black people in the region. They don't understand the wider consequences of behavior like this."

Nationalism in the Balkans

Pilic, who now writes about Croatian and Balkan football after deciding he could no longer tolerate the fascist tendencies among Hajduk's "Torcida" ultras, sees incidents of racism as an extension of nationalism in the region, black players simply added to a list of "others" which usually features other ethnic groups.

"Nationalism is still a huge problem across the former Yugoslavia," he told DW. "You will often hear derogatory songs about players because they are Serb or Croat or Bosnian, if they don't belong to the fans' own nationality. But there isn't really that much racism in everyday life because there simply aren't many other different races."

Zagreb-based journalist Igor Lasic was also unsurprised by the events in Montenegro, explaining that the fans likely viewed the black English players as "temporary targets" upon which they could vent frustration stemming from their own social problems, themselves a legacy of war and economic crisis.

"It's often young people with no jobs who are then manipulated by nationalist political parties," he explains. "It's a very specific situation. In the 1980s, it was a marginal problem. But since the war, it's escalated into the madness we have today."

EM-Qualifikationsspiel Montenegro - England | Raheem Sterling, England
The perfect response: Raheem Sterling scored against Montenegro Image: picture-alliance/dpa/MB Media Solutions Ltd.

'Not optimistic'

Rose, Sterling and Hudson-Odoi were just the latest victims of an ideology which is heavily entrenched in society across the Balkans. The Montenegrin FA has since accepted a UEFA investigation into the incidents and has said it will take steps to ban any individuals identified. But there is no simple solution.

"Banning one or two people isn’t going to change anything, the next time it happens then it will be one or two fans again," said Sterling, 24, an increasingly eloquent and outspoken critic of racism in football. "So I think there needs to be a more serious take on this."

England head coach Gareth Southgate, visibly emotional as he discussed the abuse his players had endured, said UEFA sanctions have to be combined with education.

"Sanctions are worthless if there is nothing alongside that to help educate people," said the 48-year-old. "My kids don’t think for one minute about where people are born, what language they speak or what colour they are. There’s an innocence about young people that is only influenced by older people. So we have to make sure the education is right for everybody - in our own country, as well."

Former ultra Pilic says efforts have been made in Croatia at least to introduce better civic education in schools in recent years, but that liberal parties face stiff opposition from the government and church.

"The whole attitude in society has to change," he says. "We need to take a step back away from nationalism in Croatia, in Serbia, in Bosnia and in Montenegro. But it's so deeply engrained in our culture since the dissolution of Yugoslavia, so I'm not optimistic."

DW Matthew Ford Sports
Matt Ford Reporter and editor for DW Sports specializing in European football, fan culture & sports politics.@matt_4d
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