Racism in soccer still prevalent

November 28, 2004
By Stephen Wade

SEVILLE, Spain -- Spaniards used to say they lived in one of Europe's most racially tolerant countries. Soccer has shattered that myth.

In Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium -- the Yankee Stadium of soccer -- Spanish fans bellowed out monkey noises last week each time a black English player touched the ball in a match between England and Spain.

A month earlier, Spanish national coach Luis Aragones was caught by a TV crew using racist language about France's star striker Thierry Henry. He kept his job with little protest at home.

``I was shocked and I am still shocked at what happened,'' said Sepp Blatter, president of soccer's world governing body, FIFA. ``I am sad at this new expression of racism in a stadium that has been a temple of football.''

Spain isn't the only European country where racism leaves its stain on soccer:

- Four days after the abuse in Madrid, black striker Dwight Yorke said he was subjected to racist gestures and noises in Birmingham City's game at Blackburn. Police opened an investigation.

- French club Paris St. Germain has an area where only white fans are welcome; another section is open to Paris' many Arab and black immigrants.

- Fans of the Czech team Sparta Prague still shout ``Slavia Jude'' (Slavia Jew) against local rivals Slavia Prague. The chant dates from the pre-World War II era, when Slavia fans included many Jewish businessmen.

- Fans of Greek club Panathinaikos are under investigation for racial taunts last month against black players from English club Arsenal.

- Two black players for the French club Bastia were roughed up and insulted by 30 fans after a match earlier this month.

Baseball broke its color line in 1947 when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson was taunted for years, and it wasn't until the 1960s that civil rights laws and anti-racism campaigns allowed blacks to move easily into most major pro and college sports.

Countries such as Spain traditionally have sent citizens abroad, and only began to experience widespread immigration in the past two decades. Spaniards often say they entered the 20th century in 1975 -- the year dictator Francisco Franco died.

``It took immigrants coming to this country for us to realize that we can be racist like any other country, like anybody else,'' said Tomas Calvo Buezas, director of the Center for Studies of Migration and Racism at Complutense University in Madrid.

About 7.5 percent of Spain's 40 million citizens are immigrants. The figure is higher in Madrid, where 13 percent are foreign born, Calvo Buezas said.

``Soccer stirs up raw emotions,'' said Isabel Torrado, working at Dehesa Santa Maria, a cafe-bar just 100 yards from the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan stadium _ home of the Sevilla soccer team. Several black men sat outside on benches, with overstuffed athletic bags at their feet.

``We have poor people coming around looking for work, and 70 percent of Spaniards barely have a cent saved in the bank,'' she said.

After France won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European championship with a team dominated by black and North African immigrants, 39 percent in a French survey said there were too many foreign-born players on the team.

Fans at Italian clubs Lazio and Verona have been warned about racist goading.

Known as Europe's most tolerant country, even the Netherlands has seen repeated racial incidents and violence at The Hague-based club Ado Den Haag. Dutch powers Ajax and Feyenoord also have notorious fans.

Former Yugoslav national coach Ivica Osim said soccer racism in his almost entirely white region stems from a deep-seated ``inferiority complex against larger, richer clubs or countries.''

``The racism in football is all about national identity,'' said Stefan Szymanski, economics professor at Tanaka Business School in London. ``It's a way of cementing your identity and singling out people who are not like you.''

Soccer racism also is a problem in Israel, where 20 percent of the population is Arab.

``Today there is no game where they don't curse Arabs, even if there aren't any on the field,'' said Rifat Turk, an Arab who played for the Israeli national team in the 1980s. ``People yell `Death to the Arabs' like it's going out of style.''

Despite anti-racism campaigns by UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, and denunciations of racial abuse by FIFA, the message often goes unheeded.

Spain and much of Europe have laws against racism, but Calvo Buezas said they are not enforced.

``People are not used to the fact that being racist in public is reprehensible,'' he said. ``Here, nobody will touch the coach (Aragones).''

UEFA last week boosted fines for racial incidents by Sevilla and Sparta Prague. Sparta must pay $51,200 and Sevilla $21,300, small amounts in a sport where top players earn millions.

Two days after the England game in Madrid, the Spanish Coalition against Racism in Football set up a telephone hot line to report racist incidents and sent an apology letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The incidents certainly tarnished Madrid's image as it bids to host the 2012 Olympics. The city is competing against Paris, London, New York and Moscow.

FIFA says it could be several months before Spain is punished, with a fine the most likely penalty.

That doesn't satisfy Piara Powar, who heads an anti-racism program for England's Football Association. He wants Spain suspended from all European soccer.

``This is not a cycle of events to be dealt with simply by a fine and a slap on the wrist,'' Powar said.

``The only way to stop it is to take points away in World Cup qualification,'' said Eduardo Torrico, assistant sports editor at the Spanish sports daily AS. ``Only something stern will make people wake up.''


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press