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The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game

Nick Amies
November 28, 2004

An explosion of racial abuse in European soccer over the past few weeks has seen the return of a problem once thought of as a relic of the game. But has it really ever been away?

Leverkusen's Juan (No 4) was one of those abused in Madrid this weekImage: AP

Normally, soccer fans the world over avidly follow the European leagues and international scene for the quality and excitement of the game. But recently, the eyes of the global fan base have been attracted to the unsavory aspects of the game -- namely the racial abuse of players.

The recent increase in reported offences has once again turned the spotlight on the uglier side of the beautiful game and raised the question: Are these latest sickening outbursts just copycat incidents or is European soccer still rife with racists and xenophobes?

For the lay person, soccer’s most recent racist outbursts can be mapped out in headlines. It began in the first week in October when the Spanish national coach Luis Aragones employed what he called a motivational technique on Arsenal’s Spanish forward Jose Antonio Reyes. During a training session ahead of Spain’s World Cup qualifying game against Belgium, Aragones told Reyes he was a better player than his club colleague Thierry Henry before referring to the Frenchman as a “black shit.”

England-Spain match raises profile

Euro2004 Teil1 Team England
The England national soccer team.Image: AP

The racist shadow continued to creep across the game, documented in the pages of the press, until it loomed even larger during Spain’s friendly match with England in Madrid. A number of black players in the England team soon found themselves to be the next target of monkey chants, offensive hand gestures and Nazi salutes from Spanish supporters in the Santiago Bernabeu stadium.

The scenes drew wide-spread condemnation from many quarters and led to the establishment of a FIFA investigation which is still in progress.

The specter of racism then reared its ugly head in the English Premiership last Sunday when Birmingham City striker Dwight Yorke was abused by a Blackburn Rovers supporter as he warmed up on the sidelines with his fellow substitutes during the match.

Bernabeu hate mob strike again

Champions League Bayer 04 Leverkusen gegen Real Madrid
Fans in Madrid were once again in the spotlight after racist abuse was directed at Leverkusen players on Tuesday night.Image: AP

Spanish fans were again involved when, two days later, Real Madrid's Champions League match against Bayer Leverkusen was marred by racist chanting with Bayer's Brazilian defenders Roque Junior and Juan the target of abuse from Real's Ultra Sur hooligan element during the 1-1 draw. The Spanish giants are now the subject of an investigation by UEFA.

And then on Thursday evening, racist taunting aimed at Partizan Belgrade's black players overshadowed the Serbian side's 2-2 draw against Lazio in Rome to plunge the game in Europe into another race shame. Lazio’s hardcore Ultras, notorious for their xenophobic and racist views and their support for the former right wing regime in Yugoslavia, targeted Cameroon striker Pierre Boya in particular during the explosive UEFA Cup Group E clash.

Many might think that this spate of reports detailing racist abuse at soccer games constitutes a sudden outburst, a series of knock-on effects stemming from a publicized scandal. But Leon Mann, the spokesperson for the British organization Kick It Out, told DW-WORLD that the reality is more depressing than that.

The specter of racism remains

Polizei im Stadion
Image: AP

“This has been going on for a number of years, week in, week out. The fact that there has been little widespread reporting in recent times has given the impression the problem had been dealt with,” Mann said. “The high profile incidents at the Spain-England match showed that it hasn’t.”

“There has been a general lethargy across Europe in dealing with racism in soccer," he added. "Many associations don’t even regard it as a problem. They first have to admit that they have a problem before they can do something about it. There are campaigns in most European countries but the majority of them go unheard."

Publicity brings racism to the fore

However, Mann went on to say that while there are very obvious negative aspects from these recent incidents, there are also very positive ones too.

"This publicity has woken people up," he said. "We had calls from people after the Spain match who were shocked and appalled by what they heard and saw. And in terms of doing something about it, the high profile incidents have given the likes of FIFA and UEFA the evidence they need to take action. It is, after all, a legal matter."

Ein Polizist überprüft die Personalien eines Neo-Nazis
Image: AP

In Germany, where far-right groups have infiltrated supporters and have consistently abused players with little or no action being taken, racism remains a problem and despite being quashed to a certain extent by policing and club measures in the top leagues, it is still rife in the lower divisions. However, the recent publicity is likely to have a similar positive effect on anti-racism groups in Germany.

Europe-wide awareness helped by press

“During the Real Madrid-Leverkusen game this week, there was nothing said about the racist chants and far-right flags during the TV coverage,” Martin Endemann, of the German organization Flutlicht, told DW-WORLD. “When racism happens, it is only really reported when English teams are involved because the European press follow events surrounding England, for some reason.”

“But after the Leverkusen game, there has been more reports on racism in soccer in the German press than ever before. This will help turn the spotlight on the problem and help groups and campaigns fighting racism in Germany and the rest of Europe.”

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