Football's black mark

Micha Will

Racism in European football isn't becoming less of a problem, mostly because it's still being tolerated on a large scale.

Racism is directly correlated to stupidity. Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic put it more elegantly when he wrote 'These two strands -- stupidity and racism -- are inseparable.'

There is no sane reason why Mario Balotelli, born in Palermo to Ghanaian immigrants, should have been subjected to chants of, 'there is no such thing as black Italian.' Even in the Italian national team, Balotelli is routinely booed and targeted by those oh-so-creative monkey chants. These fans seem to suggest that Mario fits the criteria for an Italian except for the unacceptable amount of melanin in his skin.

But that didn't last, did it? After a few good performances and some mouth-watering goals for the Azzurri, those chants and boos and thrown bananas quickly dissipated. They now cheer for him when he scores and boo when he is unfairly challenged by an opponent; the media plasters him on their front pages when they speak of the next World Cup. He is now the first choice and best striker for the national team with many and loud defenders in the stadium. Or at least when he plays well, because it seems that the minute that he's not beneficial to their collectively selfish desires, he is back to being a monkey.

So in tears publicly and with an open heart, Balotelli pleaded to these same fans:

I am a naturalized Italian, but I'm from Ghana, born in Italy. I had health problems, I was abandoned by my parents when I was a child and adopted by two angels. I have no friends in England, I suffer with racism everyday, I come back to Italy every week. I am the first black to wear the Italian shirt, my favourite club is AC Milan. I'm not angry, but my life experiences make me act differently from other people. Try to learn more about me before you criticize. I feel Italian, only Italian, I love Italy and I will play only with the Italian shirt.

The important aspect of all of this though, besides the admirable forgiveness of Balotelli is that -- now that the fans love him for the moment -- a black Italian must showcase his usefulness before being granted the same humanity that his peers are born with. Mario has to play well, to receive the same basic human generosity that his teammates are granted, and as well know, what one gives you, they can take away. So at any instance, for any given reason: whether he plays badly, or has an off-field incident, they reserve the right to revoke his humanity and regard him as a monkey again.

Flavio Tosi, the mayor of Verona, seemed to suggest before AC Milan's opening match against Hellas Verona that it was Balotelli's fault that the fans abuse him. He confidently, and without any hint of self-awareness, stated that, 'Mario is a troublemaker. There are lots of black players (in Italy) and those who don't wind up opposition fans don't have any problems.' Of course, he went further, finishing with, "Balotelli is a formidable player ... but he knows how to be irksome when he's out on the pitch, and that exasperates people. He even managed to have issues with Chievo fans, who most certainly are not racist." I'm willing to wager that the Chievo fans have a lot of black friends.

Marco Materazzi was never dehumanized in such a fashion.

This is victim blaming. Racism, apparently, can't possibly be the fault of a detestable perpetrator, but the victim must have asked for it. Mario, with his black skin and style of play deserves to be bombarded with childish monkey noises and vile songs. Why is it then that, say, Antonio Cassano (compared to whom Mario is a saint) is never abused with the same language? Marco Materazzi was never dehumanized in such a fashion. Nor was Christian Vieri, Franceco Flachi, Gennaro Gattutso, or if we want to make a direct comparison to who Balotelli most closely resembles, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

All of these players enjoyed or are enjoying their careers without being compared to jungle animals and subjected to thrown bananas. But maybe there is something that they do that Mario doesn't. Maybe they apologize to the fans after the games and the cameras always miss these moments, or maybe their lighter skin is a beacon that signifies that they deserve basic human decency and Mario's darker tone doesn't. There must be a reason why one darker player has to constantly fight to be accepted while similar hotheads can continue on with their lives relatively unscathed.

Balotelli's merely the most visible emblem of the problem. One only needs to watch any Italian football game where a black player seems to be doing well to hear the chants. If they're doing badly, it's not too much of an issue because well, how can you expect a monkey to play football? With the mental capacity that humans have, and the resources that we possess in this day and age to educate ourselves, there should never have been a situation where Kevin-Prince Boateng has to walk off the football pitch because of racist chants, and then be invited to speak about the racism problem in Italy to the U.N. This isn't ignorance, it's comfortable bigotry -- a disservice to human evolution and an insult to the mind.

Meanwhile in Russia, footballing culture appears to believe that racism is a competition and has begun to showcase their incredible skill at discrimination and marginalization. They've succeeded magnificently.

Reputation doesn't supersede skin color

About a year and some months ago, Roberto Carlos -- a universally beloved man and player -- was subjected to racist abuse by both Zenit St. Petersburg and Krylya Sovetov fans, demonstrating that reputation doesn't supersede skin color. Of course, the Russian Football Union, in an effort to eradicate racism from Russian football and help the image of the country before the World Cup, fined both teams an astronomical $10,000. Not too long after, Christopher Samba was a victim of another banana throwing incident from the VIP box of Lokomotiv Moscow's Lokomotiv Stadium.

The latest episode in this long running show comes directed by CSKA Moscow and "a few of their fans" who decided that Yaya Toure deserved to be compared to an animal. In the midst of Manchester City's 2-1 win against the above club, Yaya Toure notified the referee of apparently incessant racist chants that came from a section of the CSKA Moscow fans. The referee did not stop the match, but the incident was looked at by UEFA and CSKA Moscow were charged (read: tapped on the wrist) for it. The incredible thing about this incident is the utter denial by CSKA Moscow officials. Even Seydou Doumbia, Toure's teammate in the Ivory Coast national team, who came out after the incident to say:

I didn't hear anything like that from the CSKA fans...yes, they're always noisy in supporting the team, and try to put as much pressure as possible on our opponents but they wouldn't ever allow themselves to come out with racist chants. So my Ivory Coast colleague is clearly exaggerating.

This "club before humanity" irrational way of thinking only helped the smear campaign launched by CSKA Moscow officials. Leonid Slutsky who claims that the whole event was "exaggerated" and that his club is against racism, though they seem to categorically deny its existence when their fans are responsible for it. CSKA Moscow's general director, without the slightest glimmer of irony, stated that he believed that the club was the victim of a smear campaign by the British media, mimicking Slutsky in his claim that the situation was exaggerated. Michael Sanadze, CSKA Moscow's deputy media manager, seems to blame Toure's sense of hearing for the issue, stating 'There was a lot of noise in the stadium. Nobody else, other than Yaya Toure, heard anything. The only trouble that has come about was because Yaya Toure heard something.'

His statement would have seemed less absurd had Alexey Yaroshevsky, a Russian journalist, not revealed that he was directly witness to the racist chants and that not they were not just directed at Toure but also his teammate Fernandinho. Yaya Toure's Russian agent, Dimitri Selukm, who is as furious at the chants as the player himself, exclaimed that 'If CSKA are truly serious about helping with the fight against racism then they must admit their fans were wrong, that they were wrong, and say that they stand in support of Yaya.' He defends the player as "not a liar", explaining that Toure also speaks Russian and he is clear in what he heard from the fans.

So, the story is that a player who is racially abused must defend his own character as a honest human being (not to mention his sense of hearing) while the abusers are defended, or, in most cases, dismissed as just a "small minority" of the fans. This is troublesome, and the sort of tack one takes when they wish to avoid dealing with a problem.

If the problem sits with just a small minority of the fans and the rest of the fans are against such behavior, then why do those fans stand idly by and allow it to happen? Or is it easier to blame just a small group of fans, a few of the faceless mob, than to address the bigger issue of racial abuse? If fans, teams and governing bodies alike are so against racism in football, then why shouldn't every claim be taken seriously and investigated within the club as well as in cooperation with UEFA?

Change will be hard, but it does not start at denial or victim blaming. That's just mocking the intelligence of those who know better.

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