The Cup Running Over

June 6, 2010 6:45 PM

Could Countries With A Tradition of Racist Fans Underperform in South Africa?

It's been well-documented how extensive racism is in European soccer - with catcalls and "monkey chats" often directed at black players by fans. None of that is expected in South Africa to be sure. But it all raises an intriguing question: Could countries known for having trouble dealing with racism in soccer - most notably Spain, Italy, Slovakia, and Serbia - be more intimidated by playing in Africa and suffer as a result? It's not an outlandish conclusion.
Though Americans aren't exposed to it, racism sadly permeates world soccer. The black players on England's national teams have faced abuse in Croatia and Spain; Lazio's fans in Rome have been known to greet black players with "ooh, ooh" monkey chants whenever they touched the ball. This past year, Inter Milan's Mario Balotelli, born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents, has been greeted by opposing fans with the chant, "A Negro cannot be an Italian." In Russia, fans have turned on their own black players, shouting at them, "Russia for Russians" and throwing bananas on the field.   

The reasons are complex why soccer stadiums can become Europe's "theaters of hatred," as one writer put it. Soccer crowds across Europe -- at least in the cheaper seats -- seem to include a disproportionate number of the supporters of the right-wing political parties that have sprung up across the continent.
"The [football] hard-man lives in a dangerous and unchanging world," British sociologist Dave Robins wrote back in 1994. "Permanently sensitized to `trouble' in his environment, his paranoid fantasies about defending his `patch' against outsiders make him ripe for manipulation by the politics of the extreme right."
That ties in with something that soccer analyst Simon Kuper once said. "In the United States there's a strong taboo against racism; in England it's only happened in the last 15 years. In Spain and Eastern Europe, there  is none of this revulsion [against racism] among most people. There are few people of color, so a black player on the field is a new thing. In that sense, soccer is seen by racists as the vanguard of the world outside sweeping into town."

The formation of the European Union may have ironically made things worse. It was designed to bring the continent closer together  -- with the adoption of a universal currency, shared laws, and some degree of central government. Yet this has made tribalism on the soccer field even more important to locals, since sports remains one of the few avenues in Europe where it's still acceptable to revel in pure, unbridled nationalism, which often spills over into racism when the local team or country takes the field.

In Africa, things will obviously be different. Yet it's an interesting question whether teams that don't have any non-white players, or even only a few (and almost all are from Europe), may have more trouble adapting to a place where people of color are in the majority. If that's true, look for Spain, Italy, and Serbia to struggle unexpectedly.


"Spain racism latest: 'The English see us as racists, but I don't think we are,' says Cesc Fábregas. 'I don't know if racism's the word. It's a bit extreme.' · La Liga's top laid-back moments from the past few years: Real Madrid fined £6,000 for Nazi banners; Getafe and Atlético fined £435 each for monkey chants; Deportivo, Albacete and Malaga fined £411 for 'sustained racist abuse'; Getafe fined for physical assault on 'black shit' Paulo Wanchope; La Liga react to criticism from the Coalition Against Racism by canceling their grants; Samuel Eto'o says: 'If a black referee came to Spain they'd kill him'; Getafe launch PR plan to 'prove we're no racists' by blacking up their players' faces with boot polish for a photo shoot; and La Liga boss Angel María Villar calls Luis Aragonés' attack on 'black shit' Thierry Henry 'humor'. 'Everyone knows Luis isn't like that,' says Villar. 'It's clear: what he said wasn't racist.'"

Steven and Harrison Stark are the co-authors of World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics, from which this post is adapted.
u1_MarioBalotelliInter_926811.jpgMario Balotelli has faced racism in Italy. (Courtesy -- Afrohit)

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