The Conversation: European soccer struggles with deeply rooted racism

After suffering months of racial abuse, both on the field and off, Brazilian soccer star Vinícius Júnior had had enough.

On May 21, 2023, the Real Madrid forward — commonly seen as one of the best soccer players in the world — brought a halt to a game at Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium, pointing to fans making blatantly racist remarks and gestures.

He later made it clear that this was not an isolated event in La Liga, Spain’s top soccer division.

“It was not the first time, nor the second, nor the third,” he tweeted. “Racism is normal in La Liga. The competition considers it normal, the federation considers it normal, and the rivals encourage it.”

As a soccer scholar whose latest book includes analyses of how players, fans and the game’s governing bodies have responded to the Black Lives Matter movement, I believe the latest incident points to how difficult it is to change fan behavior when racism remains institutionalized in the sport itself.

While it is true that teams and leagues have made progress in signaling their lack of tolerance for racist behavior, there remain systemic problems working against real progress — not least being lack of Black representation in management positions.

Soccer has a long-established racism problem. Black players throughout the decades attest to both abuse by fans — monkey chants are still common during games in parts of Europe — as well as more subtle forms of discrimination, such as being left out of national squads or overlooked for coaching positions.

Black Brazilians such as Vinícius, stretching back to Pelé, have been subjected to racism both overseas and at home.

Indeed, as soccer writer Franklin Foer has pointed out, in the early days of Brazilian soccer, Black people were not allowed to play for professional clubs or the national team. Even when finally accepted, some of the star Black players like Arthur Freidenreich and Joaquim Prado would straighten their hair and attempt to lighten their skin in the hope of gaining popularity.

While there has been great changes since such times, the roots of subtle and overt racism facing Black soccer players run deep, be it in their home countries or playing for prestigious European clubs.

While one can argue that there have always been minor attempts to address racism in soccer, it has only really been in the last decade that such efforts have gained steam. And it has been geared very much toward changing attitudes among fans.

For example, in England, the Football Association has long partnered with anti-racist group Kick It Out to create programs and punishments for racist fan behavior. Meanwhile, the Royal Spanish Football Association has instituted codes for applying financial penalties against clubs with racist fans.

Such anti-racist efforts and messaging increased as part of a more general societal reckoning over racism after the killing of American George Floyd by a police officer in 2020.

Soccer authorities — usually wary of political statements and quick to punish players who display protest slogans on shirts — by and large allowed players free expression in regard to Floyd’s killing and the protests it sparked.

Indeed, after restarting a pandemic-struck season in June 2020, the English Premier League promoted an active Black Lives Matter campaign.

This included “Black Lives Matter” patches on uniforms — although patches were later amended to read “No Room for Racism” — and allowing the taking of the knee before games. Three years on, many players and teams still take a knee before games throughout England.

But it hasn’t stopped the abuse. In 2020, while players on the pitch were presenting a unified front against anti-Black racism, British Home Office Minister Susan Williams observed that racist incidents had risen for the third year in a row.

Soccer leagues in southern Europe tended to leave it to clubs and individuals to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, rather than having any blanket policies akin to that of the English Football Association. But again, it appears to have had little effect on crowd racism.

Italian soccer continues to garner a reputation for racism among its fan base. While examples are numerous, the most recent cases include verbal attacks against Lecce defender Samuel Umtiti and forward Lameck Banda while playing at Lazio and racist taunts against Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku after he scored against Juventus in a Copa Italia semifinal.

In Spain, after the latest Vinícius incident, federation chief Luis Rubiales acknowledged racism was a problem in the league. It would be hard not to: The abuse of May 21 was at least the 10th racist incident against the Brazilian star that Real Madrid has reported to the league this season.

The diplomatic fallout of the Vinícius abuse — Brazil summoned the Spanish ambassador, and Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue was shrouded in darkness in protest — has reignited discussion of what action needs to be taken.

Spanish police have made several arrests over Vinícius’ abuse. Meanwhile, La Liga has fined Valencia — the team Real Madrid was playing — 45,000 euros and closed a portion of the stadium for the next five games.

But given how persistent crowd racism has been in the face of numerous attempts to challenge it, I believe it is fair to ask if such disciplinary actions will have any real impact.

Continued racism in European soccer comes despite a rise in soccer’s “cosmopolitanism” culture.

Prior to the 1990s, Black players in the top European leagues were relatively few and far between — especially in countries where nonwhite players would fear being subjected to racist taunts from their own supporters, as well as the opposition’s. But modern-day fans have long become accustomed to supporting a racially diverse team.

So why does racism persist in stadiums?

Academic researchers Andrei Markovits and Lars Rensmann point out in “Gaming the World” that the rise in cosmopolitanism on the field is not reflected in the stands — that is, the makeup of fan bases is not as diverse as that of the teams they go to cheer. Markovits and Rensmann argue that what we are witnessing in the stands is a kind of “counter-cosmopolitanism” in which the “other” is treated with anger and suspicion because they are deemed to threaten a stable sense of fan identity.

If the racial makeup of teams is not reflected in the fan base, it is even less so in the ranks of those who manage the teams and govern the sport.

Analysis conducted in May 2022 found that of the 98 clubs playing in the five most prestigious European leagues — England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Seria A, Germany’s Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1 — only two had Black managers. La Liga had none, and still doesn’t.

As England striker Raheem Sterling noted in a 2020 interview: “There’s something like 500 players in the Premier League and a third of them are Black, and we have no representation of us in the hierarchy, no representation of us in the coaching staffs.”

While there is certainly some merit in the actions being taken in Spain to address behavior in the stands in the aftermath of the latest Vinícius incident, there is an argument that it is too little, too late. Moreover, it does little to address more institutionalized racism.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


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