Saturday, June 4, 2011

Negrophobic European Soccer Fans

PARIS -- Ghanaian soccer player Solomon Opoku heard the Serbian fans screaming racist insults and turned around as they set upon him, hurling punches and abuse.

The attackers were supporters of Opoku's team, determined that a black player shouldn't take the field for their club.

Two days later, Olympique Marseille President Pape Diouf got a firsthand look at what his black players endure when he traveled to the team's UEFA Cup match at Zenit St. Petersburg in northern Russia.
Solomon Opoku

"What we went through was hideous," Diouf, who is black, said in an interview with the Associated Press. "It was the classic stuff, the bananas thrown at black players warming up, the monkey chants, obscene gestures. Not only does Zenit not hide the fact that no black player could play for this club, the fans say so themselves."

Zenit St. Petersburg in northern Russia

Racism has become the scourge of European soccer stadiums. Whether the supporters are watching a minor league in Serbia or a major European competition such as the Champions League, matches are stubbornly plagued by prejudice from the Mediterranean Sea to the Ural Mountains.

Anti-racism campaigns aimed at fans have met with limited success at best, leaving the problem to FIFA, the sport's governing body, and the Union of European Football Associations to clean up.
Zenit St. Petersburg in northern Russia

Soccer officials have condemned fan racism and issued fines. But penalizing clubs or nations in ways that would hurt both them and their fans -- such as disqualification from tournaments, forfeiting points or stopping a match -- is something they have been reluctant to do.

"You have countries, [like] Russia today, where racism is a quasi-official doctrine," said Pascal Mignon, a French sociology researcher at the INSEP sporting institute. "In Russia, xenophobia is quite strong. So you will see it in a more powerful way, like you will in southern European countries like Spain or Italy."

Mario Balotelli has admitted he is growing weary of hearing racist abuse when playing football, and is asking for help in the fight against racism in the Italian game.

Americans aren't exempt from the abuse.

Midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, a black player from Indiana, was taunted by fans who made monkey chants after he scored his first goal for Glasgow Rangers in a 2007 Champions League qualifier at FK Zeta in Bijelo Polje, Montenegro.

Midfielder DaMarcus Beasley

"It's something that shouldn't be in football," Beasley said. "You get it everywhere. You still get it in Spain. I got it in Belgrade. I got it Montenegro and the Netherlands as well."

During his successful bid to oust Lennart Johansson as UEFA president two years ago, Michel Platini earmarked anti-racism as a key priority in his election campaign.

"We're at a turning point in our sport," Platini said at the time. "My idea would be to stop the match completely. There should be no half measures when dealing with racism."

However, Platini has turned down multiple requests for an interview on the subject since last November, pledging to address racism in a speech next month at Warsaw, Poland.

Ukrainian skinheads and nationalists gesture as they take part in a rally in downtown Kiev. The London-based Amnesty International warns of an "alarming rise" in racially- and ethnically-motivated attacks in this ex-Soviet republic of 46 million in recent years. The group says 60 people were targeted in racist violence last year, and six of them died.
The location is notable. The 2012 European Championship will be co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, two nations with visible racist groups.

Banner in Poland with a "no hook-nosed Jews" icon

In Poland, sociologist Rafal Pankowski fights racism as a member of Nigdy Wieciej -- or Never Again.

"To a greater or lesser degree, this problem has come up at almost every club," Pankowski said, explaining that there have been anti-Semitic banners and chants at games, as well as monkey chants.
The BBC reported last year that Leszek Miklas, the president of Polish team Legia Warsaw, acknowledged up to 20 percent of the club's fans were neo-Nazis. Speaking to the AP, Miklas accepted that individuals at his club have extreme fascist views, but wouldn't estimate how many.

"Polish society is fairly homogeneous, we don't have a lot of foreigners," Miklas said in an interview. "So Poles are less accustomed to other races and people who look different than in countries like Britain or the United States."

London-based Amnesty International, meanwhile, warned in a November report of an "alarming rise" of hate crimes in Ukraine. Much of the violence has been blamed on ultra-rightist groups such as the Ukrainian National Labor Party.

The party leader, Evhen Herasymenko, once said attacking dark-skinned foreigners is like "the immune system -- the reaction of a healthy body to the infection that got into it."

Some players and team officials say they're fed up. But even they don't know what to do.

At England's 2010 World Cup qualifying match last September in Croatia, English forward Emile Heskey was abused throughout the match with monkey chants.

FIFA fined the Croatian FA 30,000 Swiss francs (about $32,700), a relatively small amount. England vice-captain Rio Ferdinand angrily told the BBC that "football authorities need to take a look at themselves."

Diouf was similarly outraged when UEFA fined Zenit about $58,000 for the fans' behavior last March.

"There is a gulf between declarations of intent and real actions. It's double-talk," Diouf said. "You can't scream from the rooftops and say that racism has to be eradicated ... and then when proven racist acts happen, the measures taken are always weak."

Racially harassed Brazil striker Neymar
A banana was thrown on to the pitch and landed near Brazil's striker Neymar, who scored both goals including a late penalty as Brazil won 2-0, and Metropolitan Police have concluded it was hurled by a German student sitting in the area of the stadium reserved for Brazilian supporters. (UK Telegraph, 1 April 2011). What is utterly unbelievable is that the Scottish Football Association demands an apology from the Brazilian striker Neymar who was racially abused by fans in the stadium. According to the Telegraph the fan was German, so that's okay. WTF! The soccer officials need to act like the Americans. In the USA fans can't bring outside food into the stadiums, all bags are checked. The banana incidents would be easily resolved. Furthermore, abusive fans are routinely ejected from the stadiums and ball parks.

Some players, including Barcelona forward Samuel Eto'o, have threatened to walk off the field after being racially taunted. Yet others, such as Arsenal defender William Gallas, who is black, says making such a move is a complex decision.
Barcelona forward Samuel Eto'o

So are other measures, such as taking points away from a team in league standings.

"You have to hit harder. With points, yes. But unfortunately ... taking points away from a team punishes the team" and not just the fans who support the team, Gallas said. "It might not be the team that's racist, it's the people in the stadium."

In the end, though, Gallas said, there's a point when enough is enough.

"If UEFA or FIFA do nothing, yes, leave the pitch" because "it's tough to be insulted when you're not able to react."
Samboized caricature of Barcelona forward Samuel Eto'o

Some nations are better than others in prosecuting racist fans.

The situation in England has improved since the 1980s, thanks in part to aggressive anti-racism advertising campaigns and coverage of the problem by the British press.

So after Portsmouth defender Sol Campbell, who is black, was abused last September by Tottenham supporters -- whose insults included the image of Campbell "hanging from a tree" -- four fans involved were banned from attending soccer matches for three years after pleading guilty to indecent chanting.
To complete the dehumanizing spirit, there must always be a darkened grinning Sambo caricature of Barcelona forward Samuel Eto'o
Still, it hasn't stopped such incidents from happening. Egyptian forward Mido played for Middlesbrough against Newcastle in November, he was subjected to Islamophobic chanting.

Egyptian forward Mido

Opoku was attacked while he was having a trial with the Serbian club Borac Cacak last year.

"I turned 'round to see a few Borac fans screaming they did not want blacks," Opoku told the Ghana Football Association. "They hit me a few times, but I ran, scaled a wall."

Opoku left Borac shortly afterward, and four of the attackers wound up sentenced to prison for a total of four-and-a-half years. It wasn't the first case involving Serbian fans and non-white players.

Three years ago, police arrested more than 30 Borac fans for abusing Zimbabwean striker Mike Temwanjira. A year later, UEFA fined the Serbian FA after England's black players were abused during an under-21 match played in the Netherlands.

If it's hard to protect players at the top level of game from racism, what hope is there for the likes of Opoku?

"We can worry about the lesser-known players," Diouf said. "They could actually be killed on a street corner. ... That is why it's time for the international authorities to tackle this problem full on."

Beautiful Game Turned Ugly: Racism in Europe's Soccer Arenas

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