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Kevin Prince-Boateng And AC Milan Walked, But Are We Tackling Racism In Football The Right Way?

by Gabriele Marcotti
4 January 2013 20 Comments

Racist chanting is deplorable and yesterday Kevin Prince Boateng led an AC Milan team in walking off because of it, but does the rush to condemn it obscure deeper issues? Gabriele Marcotti, from quarterly football publication the Blizzard, takes a look.


Kevin Prince Boateng won the respect of the world yesterday when he and his AC Milan team walked off during a friendly following racist abuse from the crowd. But in light of this incident and race related issues that have occurred in the past 13 months, are we going about tackling racism in football the right way?

In the autumn of 2003 I was in the press box at Stamford Bridge to watch Chelsea host Lazio. It was the Blues’ first season with Roman Abramovich cutting the cheques, while the opponents were, by that stage, a spent force.

A few minutes into the game, Simone Inzaghi was tackled by John Terry. The referee waved play on, as the Italian striker continued to roll around and writhe in agony, real or imagined. Demetrio Albertini won it back and, seeing his teammate still on the ground, booted it out of play to allow the physios on. After a minute or so, Inzaghi was on his feet and Glen Johnson ambled over to take the throw-in. Angelo Peruzzi, the Lazio keeper, advanced to the corner of his penalty box with one hand in the air. Pretty unmistakeable. Lazio had put the ball out of play because Inzaghi was down; now they expected it back.

But Johnson ignored him and, instead, sent it back towards his centre-back William Gallas. Boos rose up from the Lazio end. Gallas knocked it back to Johnson. More booing, now sustained. The guy in front of me in the press box grew excited. Very excited. He picked up his phone and — obviously chatting to his sports desk — said “It’s starting! It’s starting! They’ve gone after Johnson and Gallas already… they’re racially abusing him.”

By this point, the ball had reached Frank Lampard. Still more booing. But my colleague, evidently, hadn’t noticed. Several Lazio players were now throwing their hands in the air. Lampard touched it back to Claude Makélélé, who lofted it into touch, raising his arm and giving the thumbs up sign. What happened seemed pretty obvious to me. It was the old question of whether you give the ball back when the opposition puts it into touch because one of their players is injured. In Italy it was standard at the time. In England, less so. Makélélé, freshly arrived from Madrid, realised what was going on and did the right thing. He even got some polite applause.

All this, of course, was lost on my colleague. All he heard was the Lazio ultras hound and boo Johnson’s every touch for the next twenty minutes or so. At half-time he picked up the phone again to call his boss. He was positively glowing with glee as he told tales of “vile racist chants.” He wondered “when will they ever learn?” And he cracked a joke about how “laughable” the punishment Uefa would inflict in the unlikely event that they actually “did anything about it.” Eight years on, I have a slightly better understanding of how the media (not just in England, but everywhere) works. And I’m not surprised that this guy seemed to have been dispatched to Stamford Bridge with the sole purpose of finding “a racist fan angle”. Nor is it much of a shock that he was so happy when he found it.

We live in a (relatively) civilised world. Violence, anger and hatred are all frowned upon. Yet, for many, they’re still very real feelings. And that’s where stuff like this comes in. One thing you’re allowed — or even encouraged — to hate is racism. An article about racist fans (unless it’s the fans of our own club, of course) is actually comforting. It allows us to vent our hatred for the racists. And it makes us feel good because, well, we’re not like them.

Fascists rank just behind racists in the list of people who it’s OK, if not encouraged, to hate. (Paedophiles, of course, would be top of the list, but few, if any, sets of fans identify as such.) Just as racists offer us lovely audio cues to their racism (booing, monkey chants, etc), fascists clothe themselves in right-wing paraphernalia and make easily identifiable salutes. All that is great and wonderful to those who are determined to “fight racism and fascism” because they’re so easy to spot and verbally crucify.


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When the cues aren’t quite as obvious — or you blatantly misread them, as my colleague did that night — well, that’s OK. They’re ultras or hooligans or the great unwashed/unenlightened. Mistakes will happen. (In some cases the misreading reaches grotesque proportions. I remember one newspaper having a go at “racist” Italian fans for calling Alvaro Recoba “El Chino” which means “the Chinaman”, presumably because of his vaguely East Asian facial features. Never mind the fact that the term “El Chino” is actually Spanish and it has been his nickname since he was a kid. Or, in fact, that he used to hand out business cards emblazoned with the words “El Chino”. And, if I may make a brief digression, it’s worth noting that each culture has a very distinct sense of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.

That very same article about Recoba talked about his “oriental” features. Now, I went to a university that helped define political correctness at its peak in the early 1990s. “Oriental” was a term that was exclusively acceptable when describing rugs. Why? Because the word “oriental” carries with it a geographic bias. “Oriental” comes from the word “orient” which means “east”. East of what? Why, East of Europe of course. Using that word places Europe at the centre of the world, to the detriment of other parts of the globe. Of course, in the UK, “oriental” as a term is fine and dandy with most people.)

But back to football. Whenever a racist incident occurs — and it usually involves a set of fans from southern or eastern Europe — Uefa investigates and doles out fines. Now, no matter how much the fine is, you can be assured the media will describe it as “laughable” or “derisory”. €10,000? €50,000? €100,000? All “laughable” and “derisory”. And there will be calls for Uefa (or, rather Uefa-and-Fifa, the mighty — and fictional — super-cabal controlling the world game in the minds of many who lump the two together at every opportunity) to “get tough” on racism.

Because nobody is throwing bananas at players in the Premier League, we reckon the job is done. And that’s simply not true

Fine. Who would disagree with that? Nobody. But what is racism? That’s when things get a bit tricky. Yes, the monkey chants and booing of black players are racist acts. But they’re not racism. Doing something racist and being a “racist” are two wholly different things. And in our self-righteous glee at pillorying the racist chanters we often forget that. Those who engage in racist acts may be inveterate racists who are prejudiced and actively discriminate against those of a different skin colour. Or they may simply be people who do it to wind up opposing players or fans or to seek attention or to show how bad-ass they are, but, in real-life they are in no way prejudiced. Unless you’ve got mind-reading powers — real ones, not the Derren Brown variety — or can look into somebody’s soul, the best you can do is identify racist behaviour: not racism.

And the reverse, of course, is also true. You might not utter a racist word in your life and not make a single, visible racist gesture, but you might still forbid your child to date a black person or refuse to promote a worthy member of a different race or simply hope that the black man on the bus doesn’t take the one empty seat next to you. All of the above, by my definition at least, make you racist. And a far greater threat than the guy making monkey noises at Shaun Wright-Philips or Mario Balotelli. (Of course, this is not to say that overt racist abuse should not be stamped out. It should be and in the most decisive way. Simply fining clubs evidently doesn’t work very well. But there are other things you can do. Halting the game until the racist abuse stops has worked quite well in the Netherlands and Italy and elsewhere. What tends to happen is that the majority of the crowd simply get annoyed with the racist chanters because they’ve stopped the game, proving that few things are as effective as peer pressure in controlling behaviour. Another solution would be maintaining the system of fines but using the revenue to fund a system of “observers” at matches who would be responsible for identifying individuals and getting them banned.)

The real danger with the current situation is thinking that by banning overt racist abuse we trick ourselves into thinking that racism has been eradicated. Because nobody is throwing bananas at players in the Premier League, we reckon the job is done. And that’s simply not true. Racial prejudice is alive and well. It’s just driven underground. The fact of the matter is that you can take all the black Premier League managers, top-flight referees, high-ranking officials at clubs, the Football Association, the Premier League, the LMA and the PFA and fit them into a mini-van. Oh, and it’s not just an English thing.

Nearly half the population of Brazil is black or mixed-race, yet how many non-white Brazilian managers can you name? How many French ones, apart from Jean Tigana and Antoine Kombouaré? Dutch ones who aren’t Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard? Serie A has never had a black manager, domestic or imported. Neither has the Bundesliga. Spain has had two: Rijkaard and Francisco Maturana, while England is up to four (Gullit, Tigana, Chris Hughton and Paul Ince). The fact is that, unless they’re players, agents or members of Fifa’s executive committee, black folks — with a few exceptions — simply don’t matter in football.

But, of course, tackling an issue like that is far more difficult and uncomfortable than simply railing at a moron who makes monkey chants. It’s a lot easier to write indignant features about racism in Russian or Serbian football than it is to effect a real change and ask ourselves why some people aren’t getting a fair shot.

This is an extract from Issue Three of The Blizzard. Edited by Jonathan Wilson it features articles by a host of top writers including Philippe Auclair, Gabriele Marcotti, Simon Kuper, and Michael Cox. The Blizzard is a 190-page quarterly publication that allows writers the opportunity to write about the football stories that matter to them, with no limits and no editorial bias. All issues are available to download for PC/Mac, Kindle and iPad on a pay-what-you-like basis in print and digital formats.

The Blizzard: A Football Magazine For The Thinking Fan

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y2j 9:15 am, 11-Jan-2012

Truly the best article I read on this issue. The so called Anti Racists who all are having their own opinion on Luis Suarez issue, should take a long hard look at themselves. I'm Sure Gordon Taylor has called so many cab drivers in London racist names all the time. (He's using taxi's these days because of his parking violations)

The Cush 9:40 am, 11-Jan-2012

Outstanding article. Well made points about the mob mentality and summed up with the last 2 paragraphs. Hypocrisy and corruption still running strongly through the game and i for one cannot see change on the horizon any time soon.

GB 9:43 am, 11-Jan-2012

Agree with y2j. 100% spot on - at last someone sees sense over the issue, i'd lost hope years ago

John Stitch 1:08 pm, 11-Jan-2012

I would agree with the thrust of the article that racism in Football is a complex issue but I'm a bit confused by Mr Marcotti's view of what racism is. On the one hand he's telling us we can't identify racism without looking into someone's soul and we can only identify racist behaviour, but in the next breath he's telling us that there are racist acts that don't make you a racist (monkey chants, booing black players because they're black) and racist acts that do (denying promotion on basis of skin colour, refusing to allow your daughter to date a black man). Surely, we are talking about matters of degree, and to argue that some racist acts can be committed without making one "a racist" seems slightly apologist in its tone. As the late, great Kurt Vonnegut said "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

Kane 2:24 pm, 11-Jan-2012

If a white footballer calls a black footballer "a black cunt" does that make him racist?

John Stitch 3:29 pm, 11-Jan-2012

Only if the black footballer is attempting to date the white footballer's daughter. Otherwise it's a "racist act"

JR 4:30 pm, 11-Jan-2012

this article is confusing: "Fascists rank just behind racists in the list of people who it’s OK, if not encouraged, to hate. (Paedophiles, of course, would be top of the list, but few, if any, sets of fans identify as such.) Just as racists offer us lovely audio cues to their racism (booing, monkey chants, etc), fascists clothe themselves in right-wing paraphernalia and make easily identifiable salutes. All that is great and wonderful to those who are determined to “fight racism and fascism” because they’re so easy to spot and verbally crucify." try and match that with this: "he real danger with the current situation is thinking that by banning overt racist abuse we trick ourselves into thinking that racism has been eradicated. Because nobody is throwing bananas at players in the Premier League, we reckon the job is done. And that’s simply not true. Racial prejudice is alive and well. It’s just driven underground. The fact of the matter is that you can take all the black Premier League managers, top-flight referees, high-ranking officials at clubs, the Football Association, the Premier League, the LMA and the PFA and fit them into a mini-van. Oh, and it’s not just an English thing." they dont complement each other well do they? 1 paragraph about how visible racism and fascism are and another about how its not visible and been driven underground. which is it? its the common anti-fascist problem which was highlighted in the public imagination recently when Nick Griffin was given a platform to air his views on question time. Do you allow racist and fascists a platform under freedom of speech rules or do you not? in football terms: do you just ban people from grounds and hope it just goes away? As the anti fascists and racists have learnt- that only drives it underground. Give them a platform and then show them up to be the racist scum they are. However, any one who thinks that football can be turned away from the plaything of the rich and famous( and the odious sexism, racism and homobhobia that entails) is living in a dream world. Racism exists in football at all levels, you only have to look at Sepp Blatter to see the truth in that, and as a game run to generate massive profits those profits will always come first.

Phil Thornton 6:31 pm, 11-Jan-2012

So 'racism' and 'racist behaviour' are two different things? Hmmm! I think Gabe is spot on about the lazio 'misunderstanding' just as the press misunderstood Man utd fan's ironic chants of 'so and so for england' and 'argentina' to wind up the xenophobes of other clubs. However, these subtleties don't apply to whoppers shouting 'nigger' to players or players calling their fellow players 'nigger' or 'black cunt' - why bring colour into it at all? Useless cunt? That's OK.

GB 7:13 pm, 11-Jan-2012

@Kane Well, if he is a cunt in your opinion and he is black then its just an insult. We have got to a stage that referencing race/colour in any context, whether good or inane, whether in description or normal conversation, tightens anuses within earshot - why? If you're with mates and somone points out some woman "what about her? shes fit" and you reply with a "i dont go for black girls" is that racist? i'd say no, its personal preference; saying that and following up with other ideas about personality traits or stereotypes WOULD be racist. Anton Ferdinand is indeed a cunt, in many people's opinions, but he's mixed race; if anything, John Terry was just incorrect with his terminology. I'm not sticking up for JT, i hate him as much as most players. @Phil Thornton, "why bring colour into it at all" is a good point, but just because some people notice, or even reference, that small biological difference doesn't always make them racist - they can be ignorant, sure, but not always racist. MY girlfriend is one such person. Plus are you saying you've never had someone say something to you because they wanted you to get upset/angry? I have, some people looking for fights will say anything for you to start one with them. Like i said before; you know when someone is being offensive or racist toward you and they don't even need to utter a 'racial slur'. Just remember the furore over Alan Hansen saying "coloured"; fucking ridiculous having to apologise for that. Reginald D Hunter (comedian) has a bit about not getting angry over racism, he says a friend was getting angry that some guy had called him a 'black bastard' and follows: "OK, we could get into a fight, but remember, at the time of your birth, your father was mysteriously absent". Pretty much sums up the ridiculousness of being offended at the word black all the time. That's not to say people should just prefix everything with 'black' just that people need to relax over offense taken - like Clarkson and strikers for instance. Some people want to live in a utopia where no one ever notices differences between men, women, straight, homosexual, black, white or other and the simple fact is; those things will always be differences long after we're gone

GB 7:20 pm, 11-Jan-2012

TL; DR Nigger/Coon etc. = racist (carries connotations etc.) Black/Brown = just a colour, descriptive We all get to choose how offended we are going to be Football should do away with all offensive language, racist or otherwise, directed toward players or officials. (Cursing the ball/ground/equipment/gods should be allowed for sanity)

SimonM 7:31 pm, 11-Jan-2012

"Racist chanting is deplorable, but does the rush to condemn it obscure deeper issues?" Er, no. It CAN do -- but not always. You can rage against morons AND find the lack of black managers lamentable. Most anti-racists do. Not tackling the deeper issues of racial prejudice is a calamity and should be rectified. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned with vile chants and want those silenced. I really enjoy Gab's writing but this a straw-man.

Frank 8:34 pm, 11-Jan-2012

@GB I think your point about people getting bent out of shape (or tightening their anuses as it were) at any mention of race is a good starting point. However, I feel like adding a word with negative connotations (i.e. "cunt") before or after a descriptive word (i.e. "black") which by itself should be emotionally neutral, changes the insult. For example: "you fuckin' cunt" vs "you fuckin' black cunt" brings about racist overtones - and is no longer "just an insult".

GB 10:04 pm, 11-Jan-2012

@Frank Obviously i can't speak for everyone and i know its no longer just an insult, but i cant quite articulate the sentiment that there are racist comments and there are insults with a colour in front. I mean there are insults that are only racist because we've said they are - i can think of far worse racism; people who work with ethnics, never utter a single racial slur against them, but they hold perceptions of them based on race - maybe they think some races are genetically less intelligent than their own. And thats the problem, thats where the author has a point: penalising Terry (though justifiable) wont cure any racism - if anything, those that are racists will just learn not to say racist things 'in polite company', they'll still have prejudice and even pass them on to their kids perhaps. as is the actual reality for many people. "blacks are lazy" "blacks are stupid" "all blacks are good at sport" "white people cant dance" "You cant trust an Arab/Irishman" see that's all racism, ideas about people of a certain race, having those views regardless of the individual, thats why although John Terry is a prick, his racism is pretty 'minor' in this instance. Its right that he gets punished given the law and current understanding of the issues, i just dont think it changes anything much. Some words just shouldnt be offensive - just think how we say Brit, Scot, Pole, Swede, Dane - but never 'paki' as a shortening; we're trained to feel funny when someone says it (i even type it and feel off), but really how have we bastardised a perfectly good contraction. As for football, obviously there should be a move toward stopping all foul language and insults directed towards people completely

Tom 2:53 am, 12-Jan-2012

There is a lot of guff in this article. It somehow manages to argue that attempts to stamp out racist language in footy stadiums are almost hypocritical when not accompanied by wider additional attempts to encourage a racially fair society. No. Just no. The world will never be perfect. We will never be able to stop humans in all parts of the world from being racist in their own homes. In conversation with their friends. In their own minds. We can stop them from doing so at the footy though. That's an end in itself. Try to get make the world better in other ways by all means. But just because other things are far from perfect, it doesn't mean that it's not good to have one thing done right.

Tony 11:08 am, 12-Feb-2012

@Tom - I think you've missed the point in spectacular fashion.

Double standards 3:13 am, 4-Jan-2013

Great article! It's in britain's journalists nature to simplify things, and to say that every 'boo' chant is racism. Writing, for example, about racism in serbian stadiums is outrageus. They are describing 'The Krusevac case' as racism without asking what there were england's players doing on the pitch, and how they provoked the crowd? Where was racism until the 85th minute of that game? In Serbia there is NO racism on ANY stadium, and there is no group that you can even compare to, for example, Zenit fan base. In less words - great example in the first several lines. Well done! Enough is enough!

Craig 2:02 pm, 4-Jan-2013

Is the message in this article that if you cant highlight/criticise/eradicate every single racist incident ever then every piece discussing it is worthless and/or avoiding the "real" issue? Pissing in the ocean or baby steps?

ChamaKay 7:29 pm, 4-Jan-2013

Lots of good points in this article. Great point about we in Britain being too quick to label the rest of European racist,and also good point regarding the low numbers of black people in higher positions in the game. I do have a few counter points though. Regarding the argument about monkey chanting and such not being racist though true, in my opinion, does not matter. A fan monkey chanting a black oppostiotion player may not be a racist person, but that is a racist action. Just like if a Buddhist monk punched me in a mob fight. His life a pacifism does not mean the action should go unpunished. We must focus on what football can do. Football cannot identify whether the fan who cheers on Walcott or Cisse on a Saturday is heading his local BNP or Combat 18 meeting on a Monday. Nobody will ever be able to tell if OT of The Emirates is actually full of thousands of silent racists. And thus, there is nothing football can do. Therefore, the focus should be on making sure that no overt racist behaviour is tolerated. Whether this is mob mentality or genuine racism matters not. To be fair to Gabby, he did say that overt racist behaviour should be stamped out. Just wanted to point out that football cannot and should not be made accountable for ALL racism. Football does not cause societal ills.

ChamaKay 7:51 pm, 4-Jan-2013

On the point about the lack of black people outside playing roles in the game, I think we can all see there is a problem there. Tackling fan racism and racist behaviour becomes only a half measure if racial attitudes in the boardroom are not tackled. This, I feel, is a LOT harder to deal with. For a start, it is not something that causes the visual and audible disgust that racist chanting does. Thus, it is easier to hide. Also, it is far harder to identify racism as being the reason we see so few black managers. We can say there is an obvious disparity with the black player to black manager ratio. But can we say this is obviously due to racism? I personally believe it IS a factor, but ask me to prove it, and I will struggle to make a coherent non-emotional argument. But we also need to understand that these are not problems that stem from football. It is not just in football where black and ethnic minorities make little to no impact in positions of authority. And this is the case even in countries with significant minority populations, such as Brazil, France and yes, Britain. This does not mean I don't think football cannot take the lead in changing this. But let's not run and label football's higher powers racist without looking at everyone getting their fair shot. Like I said in the above comment, football must focus on what it can do to change racial attitudes in the game. But football is not the world, and society as a whole needs to face the same tough questions football has had to answer for the last year

Sarah 3:31 am, 6-Jan-2013

White men are experts on everything, especially things they've never experienced. People who aren't white don't care about what's going on inside the hearts and minds of whites they just want to do their jobs without being abused. Kevin Prince took the right action.

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