I find it very hard to feel sympathetic for footballers. But the image of A.C. Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng rifling the ball into the stands, ripping his shirt off, and storming off the pitch (the rest of his teammates in tow) in his club’s match against Pro Patria was certainly a poignant one. “I don’t care what game it is,” Boateng said defiantly, “a friendly, Italian league or Champions’ League match – I would walk off again.”
So what on earth had got up his nose? Along with three other black players on the Milan team, Boateng had been subjected to racist chants from a section of opposition supporters. His decision to put an end to the abuse by putting an end to the match was praised by other players across the globe, but was it justified?
Clarence Seedorf doesn’t think so. The well-respected Dutch midfielder seemed to characterise Boateng’s response as immature: “I don’t see it as such a positive thing because [it] empowers more and more of this behaviour,” he observed. And his argument has an enticing logic to it. By enabling hooligans to cause the disruption they so crave, we show the minority that they have the power spoil the game for everyone else. Far better, says Seedorf, to boot out the offending faction and carry on playing.
The question is not whether racism (or, for that matter, any other form of abuse) has a place in stadia, but whether players have a right to take matters into their own hands if nothing is done about it. Ever since the rightly ridiculed Michel Platini, UEFA President, threatened Mario Balotelli with a booking if he refused to put up with racist hollers from the crowd at Euro 2012, there’s been a fair amount of controversy over the issue – not least because of Sepp Blatter’s gaffe six months earlier when he told players that on-field racism should be resolved with a handshake. (Why hadn’t anyone else thought of that?)
In fact, at almost every level, football’s governing bodies have failed to tackle racism. Just compare UEFA’s initial £65,000 fine on Serbia following persistent abuse of some of England’s Under-21s last October, to the £80,000 that Nicklas Bendtner was forced to dish out after revealing his branded boxer shorts after scoring at Euro 2012. And no, you didn’t misread that. Oh, and what about the paltry £65,000 the Croatian FA was charged after racial abuse at Euro 2012? Or the £32,500 that Lazio shelled out for anti-Semitic jeering at Tottenham fans in September? Or John Terry’s mystifying escape (with just a £220,000 fine and a four match ban), like a cat with nine lives, from the Anton Ferdinand incident?
The simple question is this: why are footballing institutions so reluctant to act? It’s a question that never gets answered. At least we’re not in Russia, where both Christopher Samba and Roberto Carlos have been offered bananas by fans. Zenit St Petersburg’s biggest supporters’ group (called Landscrona) was responsible for one of the most horrendous sporting stories of 2012: they went completely unpunished for writing a manifesto making the oh-so-reasonable request that the club recruit no more non-white or gay players – please. The multi-million pound signings of two black players who were “forced down Zenit’s throat” had broken “an important tradition that underlines the team’s identity”. And gay footballers? Well, they’re just “unworthy of our great city”. Evidently.
But don’t be fooled into thinking everything’s dandy over here. English football isn’t immune to racism, even if the problems lie just beneath the surface. It still shocks me that only three of the 88 managers listed by the LMA are black. The imbalance is uncomfortable, to say the least. Indeed, the very fact that two of the most high-profile in-game incidents of racism – involving Luis Suarez and John Terry – in Premier League history took place just last season is extremely telling.
Given all the evidence, it’s hard to accept Seedorf’s cynical view of Boateng’s stand. It was one that has long since needed to be made – and one that must continue to be made until the establishment makes some serious changes. As Reading striker Jason Roberts noted, “until the authorities take appropriate action and start taking this issue seriously, this battle will have to be fought by the players.” It’s by no means ideal, but for as long as footballing bodies refuse to clamp down on every kind of abuse, there seems to be no other option – an ugly situation to be in, in a game now drowning in cash but thirsting for morality.
Put yourself in the boots of Kevin-Prince Boateng, the ball at your feet as thugs behind you whoop and holler. “Imagine yourself,” as Fifpro’s anti-racism spokesman, Tony Higgins, does, “at work and someone standing right next to you is constantly insulting you in the worst way possible. Would you accept that?”
I know I wouldn’t.