European Soccer Combats Racial Abuse


June 11, 2006 — -- Carlos Kameni, from Cameroon in West Africa, plays in goal for the Spanish club team Espanyol, one of the strongest teams in perhaps the strongest league in the world.

He is often subjected to racial epithets.

"Hey Kameni," one heckler with a bullhorn yelled at him from the stands. "Get out of here. Go to the press and tell them that this is racism. You son of a bitch. Whether you are black or orange, you are garbage."

Even fans in his own stadium shower him with racist slurs and bananas.

"When they throw bananas on the field, I think, 'I'm not a monkey, I'm a human being,' " he said.

Marc Zoro was 18-years-old when he left his native Ivory Coast -- the nation he is representing at this World Cup -- to play soccer in Italy. For three years, he's played defense for the Sicilian team Messina. In nearly every game, fans have taunted him.

During a game against Inter Milan last fall, Zoro had enough. He picked up the ball and threatened to walk off the field.

Two players from the opposing team rushed to Zoro's side, imploring him to stay on the field -- and the fans to stop.

When Zoro next played Inter Milan, some fans held up a banner that read: "Peanuts and bananas are the pay for your infamy."

French striker Thierry Henry is one of the most acclaimed players on the planet, but being an elite player hasn't spared him from racist slurs.

"It is not the right answer to lose it," said Henry. "But sometimes people should understand why. It is painful, but I can tell you so many times [there were] monkey chants and people spitting at me when I was taking a throw in or a corner kick, whatever you can imagine."

Americans might find it difficult to understand how and why there are so many overt displays of racism in European soccer. But there's never been anything akin to the U.S. civil rights movement in Europe, in part because there are so few black Europeans.

What is taboo in the U.S. simply isn't in Europe; the continent, in fact, is home to dozens of far-right political parties, many of which have become popular by breeding fear of black and Muslim immigrants.

European soccer has also long been a bastion of hooliganism. In the stadiums, all of this makes for a combustible mix.

"The biggest thing that we faced and we're facing it now in continental Europe is denial," said Piara Powar, an anti-racism activist. "People saying: 'It's only a few individuals. Don't worry about them. What problem? I don't see a problem.' It's not to do with race, it's to do with culture, it's to do with a footballing form of abuse."

There have been times when extremism in the stands has spilled onto the field. For example, Paolo DiCanio, a striker on the Roman team Lazio, has several times returned the fascist salute to the fascist fans who worship him. Europe's national soccer federations have the power to regulate behavior in the stands and on the field, but most have taken no action.

"When some people were complaining about it, the referees on the pitch were just saying to you or whoever was getting abused, to get on with it," Henry said. "Okay, I have to get on with it, but you hope that after somebody will do something about it."

A year ago, Henry did something himself. In conjunction with Nike, he launched a star-studded TV and print campaign in Europe urging fans to help fight racism.

"So many people close their eyes to what is happening right now, they close their eyes and it became a normality," Henry said. "If you are in the stands and you hear someone saying that, let them know it's not ok. Even if it's one person in the stadium, it's one too many."

FIFA, soccer's world governing body, has always left the problem to each country's federation. But in March, with the World Cup -- and all the attendant media coverage just three months away, FIFA president Sepp Blatter decided to act. He announced new and harsh regulations that will penalize teams whose players, coaches, officials or fans engage in racist conduct. Penalties would affect league standings and World Cup eligibility.

"The national associations or the leagues they haven't done their homework," said Blatter. "But now they will be obliged so do so and FIFA will have not only let's say the right to monitor it but the right to intervene if the right actions are not taken. … And we will do it. We will do it."

During the World Cup, the new regulations will apply to players, coaches and officials -- but not to fans. There are concerns that some fans might taunt their own players in an effort to have their opponents penalized. The stakes will be high. With the world watching, any racist incident would indelibly stain the beautiful game.

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