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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Football's race problem

Franco Cufar/AG.Sintesi

Marc Zoro, right, an Ivory Coast native,
was a target of racial slurs from the home
fans in Messina, Italy. Adriano, a star with
Inter Milan, tried to persuade him to stay
on the field.

Surge in Racist Mood Raises Concerns on Eve of World Cup

Published: June 4, 2006

HAMBURG, Germany, June 3 — As he left the soccer field after a club match in the eastern German city of Halle on March 25, the Nigerian forward Adebowale Ogungbure was spit upon, jeered with racial remarks and mocked with monkey noises. In rebuke, he placed two fingers under his nose to simulate a Hitler mustache and thrust his arm in a Nazi salute.

In April, the American defender Oguchi Onyewu, playing for his professional club team in Belgium, dismissively gestured toward fans who were making simian chants at him. Then, as he went to throw the ball inbounds, Onyewu said a fan of the opposing team reached over a barrier and punched him in the face.

International soccer has been plagued for years by violence among fans, including racial incidents. But FIFA, soccer's Zurich-based world governing body, said there has been a recent surge in discriminatory behavior toward blacks by fans and other players, an escalation that has dovetailed with the signing of more players from Africa and Latin America by elite European clubs.

This "deplorable trend," as FIFA has called it, now threatens to embarrass the sport on its grandest stage, the World Cup, which opens June 9 for a monthlong run in 12 cities around Germany. More than 30 billion cumulative television viewers are expected to watch part of the competition and Joseph S. Blatter, FIFA's president, has vowed to crack down on racist behavior during the tournament.

Underlining FIFA's concerns, the issue has been included on the agenda at its biannual Congress, scheduled to be held this week in Munich. A campaign against bigotry includes "Say No to Racism" stadium banners, television commercials, and team captains making pregame speeches during the quarterfinals of the 32-team tournament.

Players, coaches and officials have been threatened with sanctions. But FIFA has said it would not be practical to use the harshest penalties available to punish misbehaving fans — halting matches, holding games in empty stadiums and deducting points that teams receive for victories and ties.

Players and antiracism experts said they expected offensive behavior during the tournament, including monkey-like chanting; derisive singing; the hanging of banners that reflect neofascist and racist beliefs; and perhaps the tossing of bananas or banana peels, all familiar occurrences during matches in Spain, Italy, eastern Germany and eastern Europe.

"For us it's quite clear this is a reflection of underlying tensions that exist in European societies," said Piara Powar, director of the London-based antiracist soccer organization Kick It Out. He said of Eastern Europe: "Poverty, unemployment, is a problem. Indigenous people are looking for easy answers to blame. Often newcomers bear the brunt of the blame."

Yet experts and players also said they believed the racist behavior would be more constrained at the World Cup than it was during play in various domestic leagues around Europe, because of increased security, the international makeup of the crowds, higher ticket prices and a sense that spectators would be generally well behaved on soccer's grandest stage.

"We have to differentiate inside and outside the stadium," said Kurt Wachter, project coordinator for the Vienna-based Football Against Racism in Europe, a network of organizations that seeks to fight bigotry and xenophobia in 35 countries.

"Racism is a feature of many football leagues inside and outside Europe," said Wachter, who expects most problems to occur outside stadiums where crowds are less controlled. "We're sure we will see some things we're used to seeing. It won't stop because of the World Cup."

Particularly worrisome are the possibilities of attacks by extremist groups on spectators and visitors in train stations, bars, restaurants and open areas near the stadiums, Wachter and other experts said. To promote tolerance, he said his organization would organize street soccer matches outside World Cup stadiums.

A lot of problem happens in countries without significant black populations.In France and England, you have the second generation of native-born black players taking the field. France's national hero, Zindane, is of Arab descent. But the fact is that most of the European sides have at least one mixed-race player, some black or Arab native born.

England was the first to confront the race problem in the Premiership in the late 1970's, with all the attendent crap, like bananas, racial slurs and abuse. But, after David Beckham, now at Real Madrid,I would say half of the Premiership's stars are black. This is going to be reflected not only on the England team, but the French team as well, where their top players are Premiership or La Liga veterans.

Spain has been the source of especially nasty taunts. Last year, England played there and was subject to brutal racial abuse.

FIFA has a real dilemma in dealing with race. West African and Brazilian players are the new hot products in European football. Yet, they are unlikely to play when they are being called apes and showered with bananas. The problem varies from country to country, with Central and Southern Europe being the worst.

The Premiership has exploded in Asia and Africa and Real Madrid has been close on their heels in terms of international promotion. The last thing FIFA needs, as the Premiership, Serie A, the Bundesliga and La Liga open up to Asian and African players is racial taunts. And this behavior at the World Cup would be especially unfortunate

posted by Steve @ 7:54:00 AM

7:54:00 AM

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