An American perspective on race in European football

Posted by Jeff MacGregor

Claudio Villa/Getty ImagesHow does a U.S. fan reconcile what fans in Europe are yelling at players?

I can tell you exactly how it feels. A hot rush of shame to the cheeks and a half-sick embarrassment low and cold in the gut. That’s how. That they’d do this. That they still think this way after all this time. After everything that’s happened. So beautiful. But so ignorant. How is it even possible?

Angry? Sure. And disappointed. That a simple passion be soured this way. That my knuckleheaded escapism becomes something complicated. That I be made to reconsider a relationship I value, no matter how shallow or short-lived or mercurial. That I’m now morally accountable.

Once you decide you can’t laugh it off or ignore it or look past it, how does an American fan of European soccer deal with European racism?

For fans in U.S. sports bars and pubs and jackleg saloons from coast to coast, that same awful game-day feeling comes and goes with every banana flung on the pitch, with every racist chant and obscene caricature and hateful banner, with every threat to walk off or walk out or empty the stadium, with every public service announcement from FIFA or UEFA, and with every apologetic news release from La Liga or Ligue 1 or Serie A or the Bundesliga or the EPL. Racism will not be tolerated. It’s the 21st century, after all.

And yet.

And yet this is just three weeks ago. Three weeks ago, monkey noises from AS Roma fans rained on AC Milan's Mario Balotelli. In his own stadium. Monkey noises.

That's some racism, old school. And that's when my face flushed and I felt ashamed to be a Roma fan. That banana-on-the-field thing feels kind of antiquated, too, doesn't it? Fact is, racial insult in big Euro soccer can ring downright medieval to an American. Not because we're post-racial here, but because we've rubbed each other raw with our skin sensitivities. It's taken 400 years to get where we are, and we still have a long way to go.

The appeal of foreign soccer to me, and I suspect to some others, is more than just the high level of play. It's how foreign the game can seem. How exotic the surroundings and the languages and the names and the stadiums and the sponsors all look and sound. How romantic and unfamiliar. And thanks to technology, it's an easy thing to travel the world, time zone by time zone, watching the great games of the age from your couch. People not much younger than I am now take this for granted.

I don't love AS Roma, or even soccer, but I do love Rome, and I needed a team to root for there. Needed one as an anchor for my affections and a goad to memory, as a way to watch television in New York with my heart in the Piazza del Popolo. Crosstown rival Lazio was clearly out of the question. So AS Roma it is, the working man's club. With it, I inherit its quirks and affectations, its bravura and self-delusion and its long history of well-meant mediocrity in a completely crooked league.

Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty ImagesFor an American, a foreign club may evoke memories of a past visit to that country.

Roma! Sempre sesta!

But how Italy struggles with race. And how that breaks my heart. American University in Rome opened a center there to study the issue. I suspect it'll be in business for quite some time. And all across Europe, from Great Britain to Spain to France to Germany to Russia, these countries and their premier soccer leagues exist along a continuum of bigotry and good intentions. The Bundesliga and the EPL have had some success in quieting -- if not enlightening -- their fan bases. At the other end of things is Russia, unrepentant, virulent, backsliding into hate.

No blacks? No gays? A skinhead is a skinhead is a skinhead, the same across every country and culture, a coward looking to scapegoat someone. Racists and homophobes like those making demands of Zenit St. Petersburg in the Russian Premier League often believe there's some critical mass of like-minded people around them.

We'll all need to figure out how we feel about this very soon. Russia hosts the 2018 World Cup. Such are the complications of a romance with European soccer.

At the level of dispassionate thought, you know this is all a complex calculus not just of bigotry, but of history and culture and money, sectarianism and politics and religion, colonialism and nationalism, of North African immigration and old hungers and new fears, all of which are explicable and knowable and can be debated politely by reasonable people in reasonable settings.

But mostly you just think to yourself: "Still? Still with this s---? Really?"

It's rare these days to see or hear overt racism at North American sporting events, but not unheard of. Earlier this week, Sydney Leroux of the U.S. women's national soccer team noted on Twitter some abuse she'd heard in the recent past.

And even that tactical banana hasn't been abandoned completely.

Race remains our mystery. And the truth -- or at least a truth -- is that you, American fan of European soccer, are likely to suffer some upset over it.

I went uptown a couple of weekends ago to watch the Coppa Italia at a bar across from the Empire State Building. Roma versus Lazio, big screens on every wall, wide fields of radiant green, for the championship of Italy. I watched for a while with Jason and Cristina, New York thirtysomethings, each of whom prefer the higher standards of play in England or in Spain. We talked a little about race in soccer in Europe, and agreed that the genius of America remains its willingness to assimilate anyone who washes ashore here; a Turk who moves to Germany will always be a Turk.

We talked about racism as gamesmanship, about bench jockeys and about Jackie Robinson, about the relatively low number of players of color across the big European leagues in contrast to the much higher number here; about which fans are in the stands there and here, and the mitigating factors of class and education and social conformity. There remains a great deal of racism in European futbol.


More on racism in football
•  Issue demands sport's attention
•  Racist tag weighs heavy on Zenit
•  Roundtable: The front lines of racism
•  Level playing field for managers in the Prem?
•  Behind the alleged discrimination at Chivas USA
•  An American perspective
•  Not-so-beautiful side of Brazilian football
•  Video: Racism in football
•  Managers and the issue of race
•  Video: Altidore copes
•  Chivas cling to national identity



"Of course it's disturbing," Jason said. But none of us stopped watching. Even in this age of miracles, how we struggle with old news and new arguments. We'll have to wait for the game to catch up.

Balotelli. Hibbert. Leroux.

Race. Gender. Awareness. Sensitivity. Oversensitivity.

Like we can barely get through breakfast. So a case can be made that racism in the U.S. is merely hidden. Kept out of sight. Another will be made (no doubt in the comments section below) that all of this is just "political correctness" run amok.

An equally compelling case might be made by reasonable people that we only hear the charge of "political correctness" when a white male Christian heterosexual majority is about to have another of its most beloved punchlines taken from it.

So you buy a pint and wait for the game. And from a bar stool in America it feels only binary. We can watch or not watch, but we can't change the long history of Europe. Nor can we much influence its present. Boycott? Petition? March? Embargo? Just as they did (and still do) here, the struggles of continental racism play out in the theater of its big league sports. Those troubles are as deep or irreconcilable or symbolic or inconsequential as we allow them to be. The solution is simply to be better to one another -- a decision as easy to express as it is impossible to implement.

In what way should any of us be held to account?

It's complicated. Long-distance relationships always are.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow him @MacGregorESPN.

ESPN Conversations