As racist incidents mount, European soccer officials vow to do more

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Soccer field

Dynamo Kyiv's Viktor Tsygankov and Mykola Shaparenko console Shakhtar Donetsk's Taison, who reacts to presumed racist insults at Metalist Stadium, Kharkiv, Ukraine, Nov. 10, 2019.

Oleksandr Osipov/Reuters

There are countless recent examples of racism in European soccer. Just last month, at a match between two Ukrainian teams, referees twice chastised fans for racist jeers. The third time it happened, one of their targets, Afro Brazilian midfielder Taison on the Shakhtar Donetsk team, gave fans the finger and kicked the ball into their section of the stands.

Taison got a red card and was banned from his next game. Later, in an Instagram post, he said he felt helpless, but had to do something. In tears, Taison walked off the field — which also earned him criticism.

“I don’t think players should walk off the pitch because that’s what I think the racists want you to do.”

Trevor Sinclair, Blackpool player from 1989 to 1993

“I don’t think players should walk off the pitch, because that’s what I think the racists want you to do,” said Trevor Sinclair, who played for Blackpool from 1989 to 1993 and also faced racist taunts. “It was difficult to deal with as a player, but in [those] days, you were told to just man up and get on with it, and we did that to prove them wrong rather than go in a negative way. Go and speak to the governing body, go and speak to the people in charge, make sure they’re aware of it, and make sure they follow up on your complaint.”

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But that approach hasn’t seemed to work so far, and now European soccer officials are vowing to do more. Critics including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson say soccer’s governing bodies have been far too lenient. Johnson spoke out after England’s Euro 2020 qualifying game in Bulgaria in October. Bulgarian home fans made monkey sounds at England’s players and performed Nazi salutes

Referees stopped play twice — but didn’t take the ultimate step they’re allowed to take in response to racist behavior: cancel the match and refer it to the disciplinary committee of the Union of European Football Associations.

Instead, the teams returned to the pitch and finished the game. England won. Bulgaria was fined the equivalent of more than $80,000. And Bulgaria had to play a match behind closed doors, with no spectators. The BBC asked the UEFA president, Aleksander Čeferin, if those penalties are really working to discourage fans from saying racist things.

“They are,” Čeferin said, “but not enough.”

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In a step toward doing more, Čeferin said he will add black members to the disciplinary committee, which is all white and all male.

“I don’t think that anybody’s doing enough about racism. We’re trying to do as much as we can. We are trying to improve, but it’s a problem that is about more than just football.”

Aleksander Čeferin, UEFA president 

“I don’t think that anybody’s doing enough about racism. We’re trying to do as much as we can,” he said. “We are trying to improve, but it’s a problem that is about more than just football.”

Čeferin has pointed the finger back at Boris Johnson and other politicians who’ve made racist comments. He said they encourage racists who hurl abuse in stadiums.

“Football is always a reflection of society,” Čeferin said. “And in Europe, I would say things are worse and worse every year.”

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That sentiment is echoed by scholars like Marco Antonsich, a senior lecturer in human geography at Loughborough University in England. He said people who consider themselves traditional Europeans are reacting to rapid demographic change around them caused by migration.

“The old society was somehow not prepared to face this transformation,” said Antonsich, who is Italian. He said far-right populists such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini helped turn the “old society” in a racist direction. Salvini leads Italy's anti-immigration League party and, until earlier this year, served as interior minister and deputy prime minister. His slogan was “Italians first.”

“And if it’s okay that these people say ‘Italians first,’ well, then we have a problem with people that may not look like an Italian, which still today should be white and ideally also Catholic,” he said. “If you don't fit into the scheme, maybe you are not so much Italian and Italy's not for you. You come second.”

Antonsich said Italians don’t see the children of foreigners as Italian, even if they’re born and raised in Italy — and even if, like Mario Balotelli, they’re on one of the country’s most popular soccer teams. Balotelli was born in Italy to Ghanaian immigrants and plays for Brescia.

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Last month, at a game in Rome, people in the stands made monkey sounds at him. Balotelli kicked a ball in their direction and began to storm off the field, but was held back by other players who convinced him to stay.

“Just simply because of the color of the face, ‘can’t belong here,’” Antonsich said, voicing what he believes are the thoughts of racist soccer fans. “‘His habitat, his natural habitat, should be somewhere else. So, he can’t be fully Italian. He will never be fully Italian.’”

Antonsich said to dispel that thinking, his fellow Italians have to learn that there is no true Italian ethnic group, and that migrants have been coming to Italy and becoming Italian for centuries.

“So, unless we break down this logic, there is very little chance that in the future we see different behavior in [the] stadiums and outside the stadiums.”

Marco Antonsich, Loughborough University

“So, unless we break down this logic, there is very little chance that in the future we see different behavior in [the] stadiums and outside the stadiums,” he said.

Teams and commentators have been adamant in their support for players who’ve faced racist taunts. But for now, players are left to decide for themselves what to do in the moment when they’re targeted. Some have already made the decision, like midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum of Liverpool and the Netherlands national team.

He told CNN that he feels he must leave the field when these incidents happen.

“I think everyone should do it,” he said. “That’s the way you support another person.”

If players simply keep playing, Wijnaldum said fans who shout racist taunts will never stop.

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