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The excuse was worthy of a giant red card.
In a recent regular-season Italian-league soccer game, Inter Milan’s Belgium international, Romelu Lukaku, of Congolese heritage, stepped up to take a penalty kick against the home team, Cagliari. Some in the crowd began to bellow ape-like grunts and monkey chants that did not abate after he scored.
What was as maddening was the statement an Inter Milan fan group released dismissing the incident: “You have to understand that Italy is not like many other Northern European countries where racism is a real problem,” read the Facebook post from the Curva Nord.
“We understand it could have seemed racist to you but it is not like that. Please consider this attitude of Italian fans as a form of respect for the fact they are afraid of you for the goals you may score against their teams not because they hate you or they are racist.”
One shudders to think what they might do if they didn’t respect you.
For his part, Lukaku, who had been playing for the top English club Manchester United before a summer transfer, registered his displeasure on Instagram and implored those who oversee the clubs and soccer in general to denounce this behavior and immediately implement serious remedies.
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“Football is a game to be enjoyed by everyone, and we shouldn’t accept any form of discrimination that will put our game in shame,” he said. “I hope the football federations all over the world react strongly on all cases of discrimination.”
Incidents like this are all too common in European soccer, and the responses from official bodies such as the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) have been tepid.
Earlier this year, after several English players were subject to abuse in a game in Montenegro, the home team was issued a one-game ban (they had to play their next game behind closed doors, with no crowd) and received a fine of 20,000 euros ($22,000).
But to observers who have been seeing more and more of this behavior at club and country levels as more black and brown players earn their way onto rosters, it amounted to a slap on the wrist.
“There continues to be widespread ignorance around the issues,” Shaka Hislop, an ESPN FC soccer analyst and former player, told NBCBLK. “Just look at the statement put out by the Curva Nord. That speaks to an inability to grasp the seriousness around racism.”
Hislop, who played at Howard University and was part of the Trinidad and Tobago World Cup team in 2006, has called for points deductions for racist incidents, and points to two factors fuelingthe problem: political rhetoric around the European Union and immigration have exposed deep societal fault lines around race and racism; and the somewhat fey actions by soccer’s governing organizations.
“My biggest criticism of FIFA, in particular, is in their approach to the issue, an inability to almost follow through on their own promises,” said Hislop, who is also the honorary ambassador for the anti-racism education charity Show Racism the Red Card. “I can remember that not so long ago FIFA instituted a zero tolerance around racism in sport. But then when these incidents occur, they are like, ‘Players shouldn’t walk off the field and it’s just a minority of fans’. Whatever happened to zero tolerance?”
For anything approaching that sort of emphatic response, you have to cross the pond and look at the way Major League Soccer deals with racists and homophobic incidents. “Since our inception in 1996, MLS and its clubs have had a strong commitment to our core values of diversity and inclusion,” said a league spokesman, Dan Courtemanche. “In fact, MLS’ community outreach initiative, Soccer For All, is dedicated to providing an environment in which staff, players, partners and fans are treated with dignity and respect.”
In the league’s highest-profile incident involving race, in 1998, a player who made racist comments about a teammate on the practice pitch was fined $20,000 and received a two-match ban. In 2012, another player was handed a three-match ban for using homophobic language during a game.
“There has been a corporate culture around acceptance and the messages of acceptance in the U.S. that I don’t think exists, or at least not to the extent as it is in the U.S., elsewhere,” Hislop said. “It’s a younger league, and from its birth it has dealt with racism and homophobia. In Europe, we’re talking about clubs in excess of a hundred years old dealing with the broad spectrum of racism where, at times, it was accepted, and, let’s be honest, legal.”
Independent organizations such as Kick It Out and the Fare Network, which are acknowledged by and tacitly supported by the likes of FIFA and the European Union, give Hislop hope that things will improve.He is a big proponent of education and says any punishments meted out to clubs or countries must have an educational component.
“For me I think sport can lead the way, I think soccer can lead the way in moving the discussion around these societal issues in a positive manner,” Hislop said. “I continue to believe we should be the standard-bearers.”