Last September, Inter Milan’s Romelu Lukaku converted an otherwise routine penalty kick, securing his team’s victory over Cagliari in Italy’s Serie A. The goal made Lukaku a hero in the game’s dying minutes, but the Belgian striker couldn’t savor the victory. During the penalty, Lukaku was subjected to the ugliest kind of taunting from opposing fans, who intoned monkey noises.
The son of Congolese immigrants, Lukaku was born in Antwerp, Belgium, and transformed into a prolific goalscorer for his country’s superb national team, as well as Inter. But his first season in Italian soccer has been tempered by the harsh reality of racism that routinely blights matches in the country.
After the incident, Lukaku turned to Twitter, where he chastised soccer authorities for allowing a culture of racism to fester and grow in European stadiums well into the 21st century. “Ladies and gentlemen it’s 2019, instead of going forward, we’re going backwards,” wrote Lukaku, speaking truth to an undeniable reality: Major European leagues have been living in a nightmare timeline this season, with black players in Italy, England, and beyond pummeled with racial epithets from the stands and on social media.
Lukaku’s efforts earned modest plaudits from a few soccer outlets, but garnered no support from the Curva Nord, one of Inter Milan’s ultra groups. A noticeable presence in the stands of many European stadiums, ultras are football fan groups, which are typically militant and organized in their displays of both club support and violence, often sporting club regalia in tandem with weapons and face masks. In Italy, where ultras originated, the groups usually adhere to tenets of racism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism in the vein of 20th-century fascists. To that end, the Curva Nord issued a shocking statement in response to Lukaku:
“We are really sorry you thought that what happened in Cagliari was racist. You have to understand that Italy is not like many other north European countries where racism is a REAL problem,” the statement said.
Perversely, the Curva Nord suggested the chorus of monkey noises directed at their center forward was a form of “respect.” In the end, the Italian soccer authorities seemed to take a similar position: Cagliari was fined two weeks later when its supporters hurled bottles onto the pitch in a separate match—but was never punished for its fans’ abuse of Lukaku.
Racism is a historical blight endemic in soccer. In the 1970s, West Bromwich Albion’s Cyrille Regis regularly endured the vilest racial epithets while taking to the field. And a famous 1988 photo depicts Liverpool and England player John Barnes, a black man, kicking a banana peel, which had been thrown at him, off the pitch. Unfortunately, that image of heinous aggression is not from a gloomy, bygone era.
From the youth level to the most prestigious grounds of Europe’s biggest leagues, racism still sullies the modern game Lukaku’s experience is one of many incidents in recent seasons for players at the club level, and in international competition, like a match between England and Bulgaria, which was temporarily stopped last year due to Nazi salutes and racist chants chants from Bulgaria’s fans.
It’s a problem that the sport’s governing bodies and leagues seem ill-equipped to combat. Even with modern camera systems and tools that could, theoretically, spot and ferret out abusive fans with greater efficiency, the game is struggling to levy meaningful punishments against racism. Ironically, the introduction of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in various competitions, which pinpoints and calculates the legitimacy of goals and offsides rulings down to millimeters and nanoseconds, has only compounded the irony of unpunished racism in the age of omnipresent camera tech. While fans are routinely banned in England, Italy hasn’t been as aggressive. As former Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said of Italy’s problem last season: “We’ve got the technology; [catching offenders] can be done if the authorities want to. The problem is, they don’t really want to.”
The larger cultural climate in Europe engenders the racist behavior that’s debased the game in recent seasons. Leaders of national political parties have trumpeted anti-immigrant sentiment and nativist rhetoric, fashioning it into mainstream discourse. The media ecosystem also fuels it, with tabloid outlets targeting players of color with sensationalist headlines and microscopic criticism. Given the broader societal factors, racist abuse spills out onto the pitch like a symptom of the continent’s reactionary rage—and it seems an end is nowhere in sight.
“What we’re seeing now [in soccer] is beyond belief,” says Paul Canoville.
He understands the situation well. Back in the 1980s, Canoville was Chelsea’s first black player, racially abused by segments of his team’s own fan base. Canoville made his Chelsea debut in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, when fascists in the National Front party were openly campaigning for Parliamentary seats, and distributing pamphlets outside Chelsea’s stadium, Stamford Bridge.
Fans reflected the UK climate in those days with more mobilized racism and violence. Canoville’s club was somewhat reviled for its hooligan firm, the Chelsea Headhunters. The group was particularly notorious for committing heinous acts of racially motivated and also indiscriminate violence, so much that their exploits culminated in a trial covered by the BBC in 1987. Canoville sees parallels between today’s stadium atmosphere and the sordid culture of the 1980s. The rightward shift in European politics today, he says, “is clearly part and parcel of what’s emerging in football stadiums.”
For example, recently-elected UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a public history of nakedly racist speeches and newspaper columns, in which he’s referenced Africans’ “watermelon smiles,” and compared Muslim women in hijabs to “letter boxes.” With rhetoric like this advanced by the country’s highest elected official, it’s easy to see how racist sentiment could seep its way into mainstream venues like soccer stadiums.
“The whole Brexit discussion has caused a great deal of division,” says Leon Mann, a former presenter for the BBC and a campaigner for racial equality in English soccer. “A lot of people have voted for Brexit as a result of stories of immigration and—this is the terminology [Brexit campaigners] use—floods of immigrants stealing jobs.”
The link between rising xenophobic sentiment in the body politic and its expression in soccer games is backed up by hard data: According to statistics compied by the UK-based charity Kick It Out, reports of racist incidents in soccer matches in the country rose by 43 percent in 2018. Likewise, the UK Home Office found that hate crimes throughout the country doubled in England and Wales over the last five years, with 103,379 recorded in the two countries in the 2018-2019 calendar year.
In the mega-stadiums of England’s Premier League, it’s easy to see the numbers manifest themselves in real time. In 2018, Arsenal’s Pierre Emerick Aubameyang was targeted when a fan of Tottenham Hotspur thwarted his goal celebration by throwing a banana peel at the Gabonese striker’s feet. Despite the fan’s arrest and four-year ban from attending any soccer matches, similar incidents have only ballooned since. The UK’s Independent newspaper catalogued dozens of racist incidents across European leagues in 2019, citing racist fan-invective aimed at former Manchester United right-back Ashley Young on Twitter, the stoppage of a game in France’s Ligue 1 due to racist chants targeting Amiens defender Prince Gouano, and Tottenham left-back Danny Rose saying he “can’t wait” to retire because of racism in soccer. The list illustrates the problem’s severity on a continental level, but doesn’t even capture the full scale: Spain’s La Liga, for example, has struggled to levy punishments when players have been accused of racially harassing their opponents during games.
“As a country we’re facing huge, huge challenges. And we know what happens in society, very often, if not almost always, is reflected in a football ground,” says Mann. “The clubs, leagues and authorities have huge challenges in how they create a safe working environment for the players and the [fans].”
Unlike some of the worst hooligan firms of England’s bad old days, a lot of the racist abuse that’s transpired in the Premier League isn’t necessarily performed by disciplined and ideologically-motivated groups, but instead hurled from the stands by isolated and otherwise unassuming individuals. In Italy, however, it takes on a completely different dimension.
“In Italy, I don’t think it’s far fetched at all to suggest a correlation [between soccer racism] and a real rise in a very aggressive, far-right reaction to migration,” says Laurent Dubois, a history professor at Duke who often writes about soccer. “The direct, open antipathy to particular groups of immigrants and particular African immigrants is really sharpened in Italy right now.”
While the hooligan culture that prevailed in England in the 1980s isn’t as prevalent anymore, Italy and other countries grapple with the dominance of ultra groups. Ultras are similar to the hooligans of yesteryear, but are far more organized—they often hoist club flags, carry weapons, brandish flares, and conceal their faces at games. The groups are often rampant when national teams play each other, especially in Eastern Europe, where they “use certain international games to articulate pretty concretely a political message,” according to Dubois.
But the ultra culture in Italy is especially pronounced, particularly for a league with global cachet like Serie A. In one galling example from last season, ultras supporting the Serie A club Lazio unfurled a banner supporting Benito Mussolini and made fascist salutes on the streets of Milan ahead of a match. Lazio has been fined for incidents like these, including this season, when Brescia’s player Mario Ballotelli, once a stalwart for Italy’s national team, was subjected to “racially discriminatory chants,” as described by the Italian Football Federation. But these punishments barely scrape the surface of what needs to be done to clean up racism in Italian soccer.
“Italy is just mournfully, woefully pathetic” when it comes to inaction on racism from authorites, says Shireen Ahmed, a writer and sports activist who sits on an advisory board to the anti-discrimination in soccer group Fare. Black stars like Ballotelli and Blaise Matuidi of Juventus, are, like Lukaku, regularly peppered with abuse not just by fans, but by Italian newspapers and pundits—one of whom was fired last September after saying on air that the only way to stop Lukaku is to feed him bananas.
In another particularly egregious example, Serie A’s efforts to stand against racism backfired spectacularly when the league commissioned paintings of monkeys as part of an anti-discrimination campaign. The outrage from advocates across the sport was swift and justified—Fare called the campaign “a sick joke”—but nowhere has the condemnation of racism in soccer been more powerful than when players guide the conversation themselves.
In this regard, the dynamic has marginally changed for the better, at least in England. Unlike in the pre-social media era, “there’s been opportunities for players to share firsthand accounts [of abuse], which was not done historically,” says Ahmed. Speaking up about racism “was very much a shameful thing” in the past, she says, because players “were fearful of the systems that existed around them,” such as clubs, which feared delving into the political realm.
Canoville remembers suffering racial abuse “as a shock to my system,” but notes that players and even fans were “frightened to cross the paths of those National Front guys.” In recent days, players have been averse to addressing racism because “players are heavily institutionalized…they’re made to feel like they can lose a career if they say the wrong thing at the wrong time,” says Mann.
But some players have been gradually putting that fear aside. They’ve started to use their platforms as international superstars to criticize powerful institutions that sometimes neglect racism and even encourage it. Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling, for example, has taken UK tabloid media to task on Instagram. In a post in 2018, he showed how the Daily Mail framed a story about a black player buying his mother a house as an act of frivolous spending, but when it published the exact same piece about a white player, the headline was flattering. Others have followed Sterling’s lead, including Chelsea center back Antonio Rudiger, who implored authorities to punish fans who allegedly targeted him with monkey chants during a game at Tottenham this season.
But the honesty demonstrated by Sterling, Rudiger, and others comes with a heavy emotional burden, Ahmed says.
“It’s so much labor to do this kind of thing. Raheem Sterling as a professional athlete had to go out there and carry this load. People don’t understand how taxing that is.”
As an advocate, Mann has encouraged players to speak up about their experiences, but he sees a contradiction at play. He often wonders “why am I asking young men to solve the problem that many who are in a place to institute policies and procedures” are unable to?
When racist incidents occur at games, governing bodies that preside over various leagues launch investigations and issue punishments if evidence is found. The procedures follow a routine script, and the penalties levied, such as permanently banning racist fans or issuing paltry fines, haven’t exactly curbed racist abuse at European soccer games.
Advocacy groups like Kick It Out and Fare have worked with authorities in the UK, such as the country’s footballing policing unit, and sometimes put monitors in the stands to watch for and report racial abuse. Fans are also encouraged to report abuse and document it on social media, and often do. But advocates say that authorities, such as the Football Association (FA) in England, the Italian Football Federation in Italy, or UEFA and FIFA, which preside over international club and national team competition, respectively, aren’t doing enough. Other solutions, like deducting points from teams so they lose ground in league standings when fans commit acts of racism, have also been suggested. So far, however, no league or governing authority has taken that drastic step.
There’s currently a debate about whether players should walk off the pitch and abandon games when subject to abuse—Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum supports it, while Sterling says that it would “let the racists win.”
But major clubs, as Ahmed says, aren’t comfortable with players abandoning games to protest racism. “I don’t think players walking off the pitch is anything that’s wanted by the clubs. They lose money. Let’s not forget this is a business,” she says.
Mann says the problem lies in part with the archaic systems in place. “We’re relying on a leadership of football that is completely non-diverse, to sort out problems that are completely impacting diverse people.”
It’s a dilemma that reflects diversity issues across institutions far beyond soccer. The current racism debacle isn’t a case of history repeating itself, but of a scourge that never died. With soccer authorities largely waffling, instead of setting strong precedents to curb the racism that so regularly mars the game, it’s the players who are left with no choice but to do the work.
Culled from GQ