FIFA’s “Say No To Racism” campaign launched in 2006. It is a common sign at all international matches through the last decade. Even more common than the signs during international matches, fan commentary deriding the need for such a campaign.
The idea that racism is an issue not worthy of attention is laughable, especially now. Racism in sports has a long and tragic history. Many turn a blind eye to the issue, a luxury of privilege. Ignoring the issue does nothing to solve it.
FIFA’s campaigns against racism, starting in 2002, kept up the visibility of these problems, but how much has really changed?
Exclusive: xNYRBII defender’s brush with racism highlights larger issues
Recently, former New York Red Bulls II defender David Abidor had his own brush with racism during a match for his new club FC Haka, a second division Swedish side playing in the Ykkönen. He joined the side after departing NYRBII last offseason.
“I’ve really enjoyed it out here,” said Abidor in an exclusive interview with RBNN. “I have had the opportunity to travel Europe and experience something different than I am used to in the states. I have always enjoyed interacting with people from all over the world so what better way than to do it in a different country.”
Abidor soon experienced the dark side of soccer.
Ten minute intermission
Haka’s match against KTP on July 28th should have been nothing more than a solid victory for the club. Abidor earned man of the match in the 3-0 win, and scored his first goal for the club. What should have been a great afternoon for the defender turned instead into a jarring reminder of racism’s presence in the world game.
In the first 20 minutes of the match, the referee, Mohammed Al-Emara, had to stop the match twice. Abidor wasn’t sure what was happening. First, in the 15th minute, the referee spoke to the captains of each team in Finnish, and the defender assumed that he was discussing the physicality of the match. Five minutes later, the referee temporarily suspended the match.
In the locker room, he found out the truth of the situation. Fans were hurling racist abuse at referee Al-Emara.
Racism is no stranger in the Finnish league. Four years ago, Etchu Tabbe and Victor Solomon experienced racial abuse during a match against a rival club. Speaking to YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, the players said that such abuse is commonplace in Finland.
The two players say that shouts like these are commonplace.
“I’m used to it now, it’s almost like normal life for me. And it’s not just me, it happens to a lot of African and black players. It happens,” said Tabe, who moved to EIF last year after a spell with KuPS in Kuopio.
“They just want to distract, you know,” said Victor Solomon. “I don’t listen to them. I just try and shut the crowd out, whatever they are shouting.”
The home team BK-46 say that although racism is completely unacceptable at their games, there’s little they can do about racial abuse after the fact.
“Of course we deplore this, but what can we do?” said the club’s chairman Tom Pihlström. “I don’t have any formula for eliminating this kind of thing.”
At Haka, Abidor is not sure if the issue arose from the home or away support, but the effect is the same.
“I’m still not sure which fans they were, but I’m assuming they were [Haka] fans because it was a home game,”, said Abidor. “I thought the referee handled it well, but I think the problem was our stadium security.”
Abidor, clearly upset by the incident, wrote a short blog post detailing the shock he felt during his first exposure to fan racism.
From Abidor’s blog post
I wrote this post because for the first time in my amateur and professional career, I first-hand experienced acts of racism during a game. We were forced into the locker room for a brief intermission by the officials before resuming about 10 minutes later. For a long time now, it has been preached countlessly to remove racism from the game. We’ve had a member of the players association come in and speak about it, held up signs before games reading, “Put an end to racism” (or something along those lines in Finnish), and we even took a team picture that was taken to social media to create awareness. Still that was not enough.
Out of the shadows
Players in the United States, especially white cis males, rarely ever feel or experience such discrimination. The unfortunate truth is, racism is a very much still pervasive, with its tentacles reaching into all facets of our society.
The world as a whole took a swing towards further right leaning politics and nationalism in the last decade. In the wake of the global conservative movement, racism and discrimination crept out of the shadows for all to see. That does not mean that it was a relapse, however, just removed from white consciousness for a time.
Incidents in soccer continue to take place each year. People of color experience it countless times in countless ways. Fans mock black players, waving or throwing bananas at them. They howl like monkeys en masse.
Mario Balotelli, experienced such an incident while playing for AC Milan in a match against Napoli in Serie A. In the incident’s aftermath, he covered his face on the bench, and appeared to cry. He later told CNN that racism made him feel alone.
Balotelli serves as an example of the effect of racism on players. His story exists alongside many similar stories shared each year.
Mesut Ozïl experienced issues with the German Football Association (DFB) after the FIFA World Cup. Though the initial focus of the DFBs criticism of the player centered around a picture the Turkish-born player took with controversial Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the conversation transitioned to Özil’s heritage, and the German National Team’s failings at the World Cup. Özil announced his retirement from the German National Team shortly after.
A racist incident touched MLS earlier this season after a U.S. Open Cup clash between the Portland Timbers and Los Angeles Football Club. LAFC filed a compliant on behalf of Adama Diomande against the Portland Timbers. The forward alleged a Timbers player called him by a racial slur during the match. After an investigation, the USSF determined that there was insufficient evidence, and closed the investigation without applying any sanctions.
The common theme in these incidents: no actions were taken against the offensive behavior.
As of this report, the Ykkönen have taken no further actions against the fans responsible. A reminder that ability for clubs, leagues, and federations to sweep such incidents under the rug is common, and a far more nefarious act. Despite the fact that the club and league garnered media attention during the incident, no meaningful change will come of it.
FIFA added an amendment to Article 55 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code that set out to create “very strict sanctions to be imposed after acts of racism or discrimination in football” in 2006, the same year they launched the “Say No To Racism” campaign. The articles enforcement and success remain underwhelming.
Photo by Bill Twomey Photography