Football and Racism (Pt. 1)

Here we go again. It seems this happens every few months. Somebody gets “misquoted” in the media and a giant brouhaha develops. This time it was the legendary Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi. His words:

“I’m certainly not racist and my history as a coach demonstrates that … But look at the Viareggio [youth] tournament I would say that there are too many black players. Italy has no dignity, no pride. It should not be possible that our teams should have 15 foreign players in the squad.”

Indeed Mario, indeed.
Indeed Mario, indeed.

This isn’t the first time. And certainly won’t be the last. In Italy, off the top of my head, I can think of Mario Balotelli, Angelo Obgonna and Stephan El Sharaawy, who aren’t ‘white’ and play for the national team. El Sharaawy has the great fortune of having mixed heritage, an Italian mother, so he’s actually more readily accepted by Italian society.

Stephen El Sharaawy. Half Egyptian, half Italian. More readily accepted.
Stephen El Sharaawy. Half Egyptian, half Italian. More readily accepted.

The path taken by Mario Balotelli is especially fascinating. He’s always been painted as the enfant terrible. Born in Italy to Ghanaian immigrants, he was given up to an Italian foster family at the age of 3 for economic reasons. He was born in Italy but isn’t a citizen, since the law demands children have an Italian parent to be Italian.

Balotelli isn’t the first person of African descent to play on the Italian national team, but he is the first pure-blood. Meaning, he doesn’t have an Italian father or mother. Fabio Liverani was the first black player on the national team, but his father was Italian, so he was relatively accepted. Balotelli isn’t. Hasn’t. And probably won’t be. No matter that he was the hero of the Euro 2012 finalists. No matter that he’s a tremendously gifted athlete. No matter that he refused to play for Ghana.

Balotelli with his adopted family, on the day of his citizenship
Balotelli with his adopted family, on the day of his citizenship

No matter that he had to wait until his 18th birthday to get Italian citizenship, and promptly stated: not only am I perfect, but I’m Italian too. He was born in Italy. I don’t know what more he has to do to be accepted in society. But there it is. He gets jeered at every away game, the monkey chants creating a haunting cacophony of hatred and intolerance.

Thing is, this isn’t an isolated incident. It’s a fixture of soccer culture in Europe. The monkey chants follow black players across the continent. From Samuel Eto’o and Dani Alves in Spain to Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids in the Netherlands. The weapon of choice: launching bananas. Because, obviously people with black and brown skin are monkeys. And it’s not just black players. It’s anyone who isn’t objectively white. The Turkish in Germany, the Moroccans in Belgium and Norway, Brazilians in the Ukraine. The French national team that won the World Cup in 1998 boasting a tremendously multi-ethnic mosaic has been demonised by segments of French society. Specifically, Jean Marie Le Pen, one of the foremost critics of Zinedine Zidane.

The French team from '98. Zidane is top left, second row.
The French team from ’98. Zidane is top left, second row.

There’s a bigger picture here. The global community today was formed by our common history. The one that stretches back to the agricultural revolution, but there have been a few recent events that have framed our current landscape. Western colonial attitudes certainly played a role, as have the post-colonial economic realities of the globalized world. The growth of migration from the global south to the global north is the logical conclusion of the economic hardship experienced by billions since 1945. Over half a million Africans are purported to have immigrated to Europe each year in the 2000s alone. That’s a massive influx of people. And they’re all looking for work, because, there’s no work and no money in Senegal or wherever. We hear the stories about the boat people all the time. Thousands perish in the ocean each year, hoping to escape poverty for a better life. And they come to Europe to work. Anywhere and everywhere. They’ll happily work illegally for illegally low pay. Which prices some native-born Europeans out of the market for jobs. This poisonous mix has been compounded by recent economic uncertainty, and the growing austerity response. I’m not trying to justify the treatment of immigrants, just trying to understand why people choose to be so patently intolerant to other people. It’s understandable that in a climate of economic uncertainty, having grown up in a culture that promised so much, and delivered so little, that you’re bound to be frustrated, and sometimes (a lot of the time) it’s easier to blame other than point the finger of blame reflexively back at society itself.

The Africans in Italy are seasonal workers, picking tomatoes. But aren’t allowed to integrate into Italian society.

Balotelli speaking his truth.
Balotelli speaking his truth.

One of the common mantra’s around the immigrant communities is: “don’t go into the white part of town”. Football becomes the only means of expression and integration, as football is a language on its own. Football doesn’t see colour, or economics. Football is one ball, eleven people on each side, and perhaps some sticks to mark the goal. Take this excerpt from the wonderful ESPN article about football and racism in Italy:

“Balotelli liked how he felt with a ball at his feet. Across the street from the apartment building where he lived, in between the supermarket and the church, was a pitch. This was his real home. When he stepped in between the lines, he found a place where being different wasn’t bad. All he had to do was go down a flight of stairs, go out the gate, cross the road, and navigate a patch of tall weeds between the street and the stadium. He seemed safe there, creating an Italy where he belonged. Maybe that’s why he’s said he’ll never be forced from a pitch by racist chants. He’d be letting the hatred drive him from his home.”

Le foot, c’est l’expression, c’est magnifique.

And you know, if we think we’re entirely immune to this incredible intolerance here in North America, lets not forget the (shocking) but real abuse levelled at PK Subban recently. Granted this was definitely an outlier case, in a North American sports culture that is dominated by black athletes, but it demonstrated the deeply-held ingrained intolerant beliefs of some people.

And yeah, I’m not pointing fingers at anyone here. Intolerence cuts both ways. I’ll always remember those times I’ve walked through a village in rural Kenya. The children will run around me, chanting wazungu, wazungu, wazungu, which is Swahili for ‘white person’. What you see is what you know. In the Italian case, there was a definite correlation between townies and intolerance. Just like the village in rural Kenya. What you see is what you know. And the children tell it like it is. They saw something rare, something they’re rarely exposed to: people who looked objectively different. They ran around pointing it out. No malice, it wasn’t racist or anything like that. It was just objectively stating: look, its foreigners. The novelty of something different. But that’s how it starts. The novelty of difference soon yields to distrust of difference, especially when twinned with economic hardship.

racist gif

Much of the literature in Europe on racism and football has focussed on the proliferation of right-wing groups. And rightly so. When a generation of people are raised with a certain amount of expectations, and society fails to meet those expectations (you know, the career, the house, the stability) the generation starts pointing fingers. In the European case, the finger is pointed at those that aren’t white. Those that aren’t objectively and obviously European. In America that finger is sometimes pointed at the Mexicans. Those that aren’t objectively and obviously American. The theme is the same. Blame other.

It’s not like there are deep-rooted structural issues at work.

Blame other.

It’s not like we’re all just trying to survive.

Blame other.

Balotelli posted this on instagram, and was promptly suspended by the FA for racism and anti-semitism. Yet, racist fans are allowed to do monkey chants and throw bananas? I personally have no problem with the post, and don't see it as inflammatory at all. It's a joke, right? Pointing out the illogicalness of racism.
Balotelli posted this on instagram, and was promptly suspended by the FA for racism and anti-semitism. Yet, racist fans are allowed to do monkey chants and throw bananas? I personally have no problem with the post, and don’t see it as inflammatory at all. It’s a joke, right? Pointing out the illogicality of racism.

Authors Note: I’m pre-emptively calling this Pt. 1 simply because I know this’ll be a subject I’ll address again. And again. Because it keeps happening. Every few months…



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