The complex, interwoven marriage between racism and football

Napoli defender, Kalidou Koulibaly. [PHOTO CREDIT: Daily Mail]
Napoli defender, Kalidou Koulibaly. [PHOTO CREDIT: Daily Mail]

For emphasis, consider the top of the goal scorers’ chart in the most-watched football league in the world, the English Premier League. A Gabonese, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, leads the race with 13 goals, followed by an Egyptian, Mohamed Salah.

It is this sort of success that makes racism in the game more irritable.

The latest episode of racism is the vile abuse Senegalese Napoli defender, Kalidou Koulibaly, was subjected to at San Siro last Sunday. A normally cool and unflappable player was goaded into collecting two yellow cards and being sent off.

In December, across Europe, there have been racist chants, thrown bananas, anti-Semitism and lots more as the game descended to the level of fascists.

In the Inter Milan versus Napoli game, Napoli manager, Carlo Ancelotti, revealed after the game that they advised the referee to stop the game, though the referee, Paolo Silvio, Mazzoleni, deemed the incident not dire enough.

What Mazzoleni deems is – whether salient or unwritten, the referees have more desire to ensure the show goes on.

Ancelotti said, “Maybe we have to take matters into our own hands next time and stop play ourselves.

“They’ll probably make us lose the game if we walk off, but we are prepared to do it. It’s not good for Italian football, seeing this,” he added.

It is not good for Italian football neither is it good for any football at all.

About two weeks ago, Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling was abused racially at Stamford Bridge and he laid the blame squarely on a ‘racist’ media.

Cristiano Ronaldo weighed in on the subject by writing on Instagram, “In the world and in football, there always needs to be education and respect. No to racism and to any sort of insult and discrimination!!!”

Former Liverpool and England forward, John Barnes, recently wrote an intellectual piece in the Guardian, on racism.

“I compare it to a cold. When we feel symptoms of a cold, we take tablets and suck sweets, and it makes us feel better, for a while. But we haven’t found a way to treat the cause, and sooner or later it will come back. With racism, it is exactly the same.”

He continued: “The same message is still being taught, and the media plays a major part in that. We, as a society view different groups of people based on the way they are reported.

“We read about Muslim grooming gangs, Jamaican Yardie gangs or Nigerian conmen, but when a group of white people are guilty of the same crimes there is no reference to race.

“If a Muslim commits a murder we cry terrorism even before we know their motivation, but if a white person does it he’s a lone wolf. Subtly and subliminally we have been given a negative perception of Nigerians, Jamaicans and Muslims.”

FIFA, football’s governing body can be said to be paying lip service to this endemic cancer. The body set up a Task Force Against Racism and Discrimination in 2013 but that body was shut down in 2016 because FIFA believed it to have achieved its aim.

Nothing could be further from the truth!

Going into the 2018 World Cup, FIFA president, Gianni Infantino said, “Anti-discrimination measures were a high priority.” And that led to measures giving referees the power to ‘stop or abandon’ matches when they believe racism is being perpetrated in the stadium.

Infantino added, “In terms of discrimination, we will have clear procedures in place, including a three-step process for referees who can stop, suspend or even abandon a match in case of discrimination.

“We have a monitoring system and then immediate sanctions if something happens. We obviously wish that doesn’t happen and everyone has been warned that if it happens, there will be serious consequences.”

But these are mere palliatives because the scourge continues to spread with more political isolationism in vogue.

After the abuse thrown at Koulibaly, Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, apologised to Koulibaly, who also apologised to Napoli’s fans but reiterated that he was proud to be black and Senegalese.

Inter have since been ordered to play two matches behind closed doors but as we have seen and witnessed in the past, this will not stop the racist chanting.

Fare, an anti-discrimination organisation believes the two-match closed door punishment is a good signal, but one that is not enough. “We note the sanction applied to Inter, two matches behind closed doors is a clear signal, but it is not enough, so much more still remains to be done to stop the rot at the heart of Italian football.”

Barnes has a solution, which will see the whole society taking responsibility – “The victory won’t come when nobody feels able to voice racist abuse but when nobody thinks of doing so in the first place.”

Can we ever get to that place?

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