Racist chants in Czech football: 'I know it'll happen again'
Jean-David Beauguel can still recall the first time he experienced racist abuse in the Czech Republic, soon after he arrived in the country six years ago.
"It was during my first season, from fans of Sparta Prague," he told DW. "At this moment I was younger and I didn't understand what happened. I didn't really take much notice of it. Nobody reacts to it because players are used to this."
Beauguel feels little has changed since then. He says racism suffered by black players in the country is "normal." That was evidenced on Sunday, when the Viktoria Plzen striker was subjected to clearly audible monkey chants during a Czech league match at Sigma Olomouc.
The incident occurred as Beauguel tussled for the ball near the corner flag. In the immediate aftermath, he gestured to the home support and exchanged words with two of his teammates, including Plzen's captain, Jakub Brabec. Crucially, however, the referee failed to stop the game, in line with UEFA's three-step protocol for dealing with racist abuse. On Thursday, Olomouc were fined €4,500 ($5,000) by the Czech league (LFA) for the "racist behavior" of their fans.
"I started to hear 'Uh uh uh' like a monkey and I was furious, I reacted to it," Beauguel said. "I went to speak to the ref and ask him why he didn't react to it, what's wrong. He said we have to wait. It's crazy."
"When it's too much, it's too much," he added. "The moment is like a volcano. You keep it inside and then the moment comes [makes exploding sound]. You can't keep it inside because it's too much. You have to do something."
Asked how he would act if it happened again, Beauguel said he wouldn't hesitate to walk off the pitch.
"I know it will happen again," he said. "If I play and it happens, I will go out. I don't care if we're winning or not winning. I'm not here to put up with this. If my teammates follow me, I will be happy. If not, I will not be mad because they are big men, they have to take their own decisions. But my feeling personally, I will stop."
Problems at Olomouc
Olomouc quickly apologized to Beauguel and Plzen in a statement, saying the club was "strictly against the type of racist behavior that a small group of fans showed. Such behavior should not be part of any football game."
While most football leagues in Europe have returned to action in empty stadiums, the Czech league is among the few to allow spectators to be present, with the current government cap of 500 people at outdoor gatherings due to be increased to 2,500 for the next round of matches at the weekend.
But the desire to create some atmosphere by letting a select group of vocal supporters back inside Olomouc's Andruv Stadium has already had unfortunate consequences.
Spokeswoman Alice Zbrankova said the club was still working to confirm the identity of the fans involved. Olomouc officials had hoped a new leader of its ultras group would improve dialogue and stop the kind of incidents that have plagued the club in recent years.
In 2017, Czech police investigated after a section of Olomouc's away support aimed racist abuse at their own player, Congolese winger Bidje Manzia, during a second division match in Pardubice. Despite chants of "Negro out," no charges were filed.
And then the season after that, on their way to a game in Prague, three Olomouc fans were accused of verbally and physically assaulting a black man on a tram. The man required hospital treatment for his injuries. Again, the fans escaped criminal punishment.
This latest incident is being seen as significant because, unlike in previous cases of football-related racism in the country, Beauguel, 28, has taken a public stand, expressing his displeasure on social media and engaging with other football fans, who have largely shown him their support.
Racist abuse inside football stadiums is by no means a new phenomenon in the Czech Republic or elsewhere in Europe. But many observers have warned that racist incidents are on the rise, with football mirroring society as a whole.
Pavel Klymenko, from the anti-discrimination network Fare, says the recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have caused a reaction from European far-right groups, which is being led by football fans. He points out this is particularly prevalent in countries without a long history of multiculturalism.
"Messages are being distorted, including by the media across central and eastern Europe, feeding the conspiracy theories about threats to white people and the threats to tradition," Klymenko said.
"The danger I see in the months to come is we're going to see a massive reactionary wave of far-right groups being more vocal, more open with their racism and feeling the need to react to the BLM movement."
For its part, the LFA, which oversees the top two divisions of Czech football, has been lukewarm in its response, calling the abuse against Beauguel a "rare act by some individuals." The LFA's disciplinary committee has the power to impose fines or stadium bans, but there is no precedent for docking points, as has been done in UEFA competitions.
Stepan Hanus, a spokesman for the LFA, told DW the league took the case "very seriously" but added that "we do not have many examples of such a behavior in the Czech stadiums like in western Europe."
Klymenko says it is precisely attitudes like this, minimizing the scale of the problem and blaming "a few bad apples," that contribute to a lack of change. He would like to see tougher punishments.
"Across central and eastern Europe, the presence of far-right groups among football fans is more visible as it's less confronted," Klymenko said. "Less is being done by the regulatory bodies and governments to confront the far-right groups in football. Without a proper acknowledgement of a systemic problem, this is bound to be repeated again and again."
Despite the obstacles, Beauguel hopes what is currently going on in the world can be a watershed moment.
"I know that it will not change like this, 'Bam,'" he said. "It's a hard fight, it will take a longer time. I just want the players who will come here, Muslims, Chinese, black, to feel that life here will be easier for them."