Black, Beautiful, Believed: Soccer’s Dark Crisis Brought to Light

Editor’s Note: What you’re about to read paints a sharp picture of racism in professional sports. And rather than shy away from this reality, our author Itua Uduebo clearly illustrates its ugliness and, in particular, its language. Please be advised as to the word choices you’ll encounter, but also know that in making those choices, Uduebo takes a hard look at a real issue, the kind of look the problem warrants.

Sports are about struggle. And in many ways, so is race. Both of these common experiences transcend humanity beyond the purely physical, and by consequence, they share an undeniable bond. Race and sports are as thematically compatible as they are conceptually opposed, and this relationship manifests itself in the best and worst ways.

Sports and race: the struggle for individual glory and the struggle for collective wellbeing.

Humanity is defined by a set of fundamental shared realities: we exist, together on this earth, and do our best to make it through this wild ride without collapsing under its madness. Over the centuries we’ve managed to come up with newer and better ways to coexist, inventions and concepts that bind us to a common experience. Sports found its roots in the games that young boys would play as subconscious preparation for the hardships of life and war. Competition remains to this day one of the most exalted forms of human interaction. We respect winners and aspire to imitate their actions and mindsets; we respectfully dismiss losers and hope to avoid their mistakes and failures. Even our religions profess that those who are blessed by the powers that be will be rewarded with achievements and success. We idolize the notion of victory and worship the Great Men of History for their sheer differentness, the manifestation of their victories in the form of lasting, sustained impact across time. Sports appeals to us because it’s about striving to attain the best version of ourselves.

If sport appeals to our best natures, then race appeals to our very worst. Humans have always been fascinated by that which makes us different, and race divides us by instinct. It’s a visual barrier that’s either reinforced or faded out by societal mechanisms. It’s a paradigm that impairs our ability to move forward from injustice by creating dark incentives to maintain the status quo for the dominant races in societies. This unfortunate tendency to view each other as fundamentally separate has led to some of the worst atrocities in history and sustained systemic oppression throughout our modern world. The antiquated notion that globalization and social progress would bring about some new, post-racial era has been proven false in dramatic fashion over the last two decades or so. Being able to classify people by their color and make reflexive judgments about them is simply too simple, too efficient, and too powerful a system for those who reap its benefits to give up willingly. As should be painfully obvious, discussing the issue of racism could take up more pages than this publication has put together, but for our purposes it’s most important to recognize that race is an inescapable reality of the human experience. It’s unpleasant, unfortunate, and will require a monumental undertaking to correct, but the work is being done, and that’s what truly matters.

Bradley Beal, CJ McCollum and Other NBA Stars Speak Out on Racism for Black History Month | Source: © Bleacher Report/YouTube

The basic nature of these two concepts is clear, and so are their intersections. Sports can divide in their own unique way; allegiances to teams come with assimilation into cultures, complete with their own stories and unique realities. Even bouts of violence amongst the more passionate supporters isn’t entirely uncommon, causing real-life damage over an abstract form of belonging. Intense rivalries are certainly good-natured fun for the fans but there is something undeniably strange about the fact that when I hear the word “Boston,” my first thought is “Fuck Tom Brady” (I stand by that sentiment, but still). At the same time, race can serve as a catalyst for unity, an obstacle to overcome and transcend. Throughout history, people have come together despite their differences to fight against injustice. It’s often too late or too little, but it is possible and it is a goal that good people strive for. The existence of race and its use as a tool of oppression also creates a measuring stick by which our ideal society can be measured. A world where this instinctual division can be overcome is a world that will truly know peace, prosperity and justice for all people.

If sport appeals to our best natures, then race appeals to our very worst.

1968 Summer Olympics Black Power Salute (Source: Wikipedia)
1968 Summer Olympics Black Power Salute | Source: Wikipedia

Sports and race: the struggle for individual glory and the struggle for collective wellbeing. The history of this intersection is vast, especially in our tumultuous society. The world of American race relations is an all-too-ideal setting for stories of different experiences both motivating the search for unity and facilitating the reinforcement of oppression. Jesse Owens causing a headache for Hitler in 1936. Tommie Smith and John Carlos saluting Black Power in 1968. Jackie Robinson’s first game in the Majors. Muhammad Ali being stripped of his titles. The worldwide worship of Michael Jordan. The nation-dividing trial of O.J. Simpson. Colin Kaepernick and the silent protest that kicked off a new culture war. Each of these stories, for all their power, is only a small part of a larger narrative, one highlight out of a sea of injustices. The legend of Jackie Robinson, for example, leaves the legacy of the Negro Leagues in the backdrop, relegating thousands of black baseball players to one tragic mass. On a deeper level, each of these stories is also the story of the natural experience of race combining with the natural power of sports to spark conversation and force people to take notice. It should come as no surprise then that the most naturally powerful sport of them all, easily the world’s biggest, is finally finding its moment of conversation.

Rio Ferdinand speaks passionately about the issues of racism within football | Source: © BT Sport/YouTube

Soccer is the most watched, most beloved, and most beautiful game this species has ever produced. It’s a thing of rhythm, drama, song and scenery. People live and breathe their clubs. The mere mention of a club legend’s name is enough to illicit joy, while the mention of a painful loss can zap all happiness from a room. You can find a professional league in almost every nation and a young aspiring superstar on almost every street corner. Its pinnacle, the quadrennial World Cup, is a truly global celebration, surpassed only by the Olympic Games in the number of countries represented. And so it stands as an absolute shame that black players have been facing racist attacks in this sport. Not to mention the institutionalized dismissal of their pain for decades, and, ultimately, since the sport’s very inception. Soccer’s race issue is no longer an open secret, something hastily rushed into the back pages after every incident. Thanks to black players who understand the power of their platforms, the nature of their experiences, and the urgency of their cause, the sport has finally become prepared for a long-needed reckoning. The Beautiful Game has found itself in a position to earn its glory by coming together and finding a solution to its ugliest problem.

How ugly of a problem are we talking about here? To help get a sense, let’s do a little exercise. Imagine being Mario Balotelli.

Mario Balotelli (Source: Commons)
Mario Balotelli playing for Italy in Euro 2012 | Source: Commons

Imagine being the 21-year-old striker who delivered Italy to the final game of the 2012 Euros, one of the sport’s biggest events, with two classic goals in a 2-1 upset over heavyweights Germany. Imagine the pride of being the lone black face of a European giant, a space you had to work like a madman to occupy. Imagine transforming into a global superstar overnight, becoming an idol of your countrymen and touted as the next generational soccer icon.

Now imagine getting called a nigger; or a monkey; or a subhuman by those same countrymen not even a few months later. Imagine dealing with that level of abuse since you were 18 years old — or likely even younger — and facing media backlash for standing up for yourself. Imagine being labelled a “problem player” because you react poorly to having your basic humanity disrespected by opposing fans. Imagine feeling as If the nation you deeply love, your only home, will never truly accept you due to the color of your skin.

Balotelli: Racism makes me feel alone | Source: © CNN/YouTube

If those two things seem hard to square together, it’s because they are. This is the level of cognitive dissociation which black athletes — particularly black soccer players in Europe and South America — constantly face: the combination of adoration and otherization, the individual high status mitigated by belonging to the oppressed group. Navigating these spaces means figuring out exactly how much of your identity is defined by personal achievement and how much is defined by collective moral obligation. Some choose to go full-on activist, while some choose to ignore the cause altogether; as a future-Hall of Fame NFL player once proclaimed, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” It’s an extremely difficult set of choices to make, and as much as I may have a bias on the proper path of action, the rights of the individual must be respected. The problem, however, is that the path of silence and complacency is rewarded with mainstream appreciation, while those who choose to speak are labelled troublemakers, loudmouths who are making a big deal out of nothing and sullying the beauty of the game.

Being able to classify people by their color and make reflexive judgments about them is simply too simple, too efficient, and too powerful a system for those who reap its benefits to give up willingly.

This pattern has played itself time and time again in the world of soccer; we can look at a series of incidents in Spain in the mid-2000’s as another example. Carlos Kameni, former goalkeeper for Spanish La Liga team Espanyol, describes multiple incidents of being subjected to racist chants from his own fans and bananas being thrown at him — a classic form of taunting against black players — between 2004 and 2006. In March of 2006, FC Barcelona superstar Samuel Eto’o attempted to walk off the pitch after suffering abuse from the fans of the opposing team Real Zaragoza, but was ultimately persuaded to play on. Black players on the English national team were subjected to monkey chants during a friendly away game against Spain in November of 2004, and Real Madrid legend Roberto Carlos suffered a similar treatment in the Madrid derby against Atlético Madrid. The highlight of this spree came with the discovery that the Spanish national team coach at the time, Luis Aragonés, was hyping up one of his players to face French and Arsenal legend Thierry Henry by referring to him as “that black shit”, a transgression for which he was fined a paltry €2,000.

The grand result of all these incidents? The President of the Spanish Football Federation at the time, Angel María Villar Llona, urging the global soccer community not to “make a mountain out of a molehill.” Think about that for a second: some of the most high-profile names in the world — including black Brazilian icon Ronaldinho, who proudly declared that if his teammate Eto’o left Spanish football due to the abuse, he would depart as well — spoke up to the media time and time again, clearly expressing their pain, drawing attention to the issue, and were met with minimal acknowledgement.

Samuel Eto’o Threatening to Walk Off Pitch after Racist Abuse | Source: Wai Kit Kong/YouTube

A summary of every high-profile case alone could fill an entire journal, let alone the thousands of incidents that never make the paper. I could talk about manager-turned-commentator Ron Atkinson referring to black Chelsea player Marcel Desailly as a “fucking lazy thick nigger” on live TV, unaware that his sound was being picked up. I could talk about Oguchi Onyewu being physically assaulted by fans while playing for Standard Liège in Belgium. I could talk about FC Ural Yekaterinburg striker Pavel Pogrebnyak calling the idea of black players representing the Russian national team “laughable.”

I could talk about those and a lot more, but the thing is, I’d rather talk about stories like that of Mario Balotelli. I’d rather talk about the stories that show how the game can bring people together in spite of differences, how black players drawing attention to their painful experiences unites people around the world to believe and work for a better day, when those experiences cease to exist.

The Beautiful Game has found itself in a position to earn its glory by coming together and finding a solution to its ugliest problem.

In recent years, soccer racism has come under the spotlight in a way that players like Kameni and Eto’o could probably never have imagined. Balotelli’s treatment at the hands of Italian — and recently French — football fans hasn’t gotten much better over the last decade, but the conversations about those incidents have become prevalent and inescapable. The Italian’s firm stance in the face of attacks prompted social media explosions and national introspection in the Italian soccer community. What used to simply be “part of the game” is now recognized as the vile act that it is, and even those who perpetuate it are aware they do so to the shame of their country at large. When Kevin-Prince Boateng, a former teammate of Mario’s at AC Milan, walked off the pitch following racist abuse at the hands of lower-league side Pro Patria, his protest sparked global headlines and ushered in calls for a new wave of reforms, which, to the surprise of everyone at the time, actually happened. In 2013, the president of FIFA at the time, Sepp Blatter, invited the Ghanaian midfielder to sit on a task force dedicated to codifying the governing body’s anti-racism stance into official regulation. A system of warnings, fines and empty stadium games for first offenses, in addition to demotion, deduction of league points, five-to-ten-game bans and expulsion from tournaments for second or “serious” offenses may not seem as satisfying as lifetime bans, but compared to where the game was just a year before, the same year as Balotelli’s epic summer, it was a major step.

Moise Kean (Source: ©
Moise Kean | Source: ©

Fast forward to 2019 and we have stories like that of Juventus striker Moise Kean facing racist attacks from Cagliari Calcio fans. Not only did the young player find no support from the opposing management, but even faced backlash from his own manager and teammate, who condemned the opposing supporters but argued that Kean could have taken steps to avoid provoking his attackers. These parts of the story follow the same sad script that we’ve seen before, but the adoration the young man has received around the world, and the support of the wider soccer community, is the kind of thing one couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. Of particular importance is the outpouring of love the young Italian received from his fellow countrymen, everywhere from the club’s home of Turin to the streets of Rome. Italy’s struggles with racism and xenophobia go far deeper than football, and one semi-positive response amidst a history of hatred comes nowhere close to fixing the issue. But a step like this is a mark that things can and will get better, that as long as these stories continue to get told, people will listen, and, with time and patience, change.

When Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling was racially abused by Chelsea fans in December of 2018, he didn’t just raise the issue, he took control of the narrative and became the newest voice of the movement. Loudly declaring that enough was enough, Sterling has gone on to not only address his own incident with the bravery the occasion demands, but to highlight other cases and trends that have previously avoided discussion. One such example is the widely different way soccer media treats players when their names come in the news. In a recent Instagram post, the English international featured two screenshots of articles from the Daily Mail, a major paper in the U.K., one featuring a black youth player who’d bought his mother a house, the other featuring a white youth player who’d performed the same good deed. The differences in coverage couldn’t be clearer: the black player was an ignorant, flashy fool spreading cash before he’d even played his first senior game, while the white player was a good son doing a noble act. This unfair disparity in coverage has always been prevalent across the soccer world since the dawn of soccer coverage, as Sterling himself knows, having been the victim of more than a few biased stories about his love of expensive cars and clothes (try to find similar coverage of renowned big spender Cristiano Ronaldo, see what comes up).

Raheem Sterling opens up about racism in football, PFA voting and Man City’s quadruple chase | Source: © BT Sport/YouTube

The black player is otherized in the press, disrespected on the field and discredited in the court of public opinion the second they protest their treatment; this is the paradigm that this new generation of players strives to eliminate from the game, once and for all. The bravery required to transcend individual achievement and bring attention to deep, painful social conflict is the kind of bravery that changes minds, cultures, and countries. Progress has been wrested from the hands of ignorance, but the sport still has a long way to go. For every Kean and Sterling and Boateng, there are hundreds of other players with stories to share and countless incidents that we may never come close to knowing about. All we can do, and what we must do, is continue to listen, to support, and ultimately, to work for the change we all desire to see.

One day, The Beautiful Game may finally be beautiful for everybody.

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