Fans' Racist Taunts Rattle European Soccer
Governing Federations Debate New Rules, Sanctions to Curb Abusive Behavior in StandsBy Keith B. Richburg/
Washington Post, December 13, 2004
PARIS -- Europe's soccer stadiums, long known for boisterous, drunken fans and hooligans, have lately become fertile ground for a continent-wide problem: racism.
Professional soccer teams, their national and international governing bodies and anti-racism groups have been grappling with a number of incidents around Europe over the last month. They have prompted reviews of the rules, legal action against some fans, and heated debates on sports pages and Internet chat sites about whether the stadiums have become the new preserve of racists, anti-Semites and xenophobes.
Among recent incidents across the continent:
• In France on Nov. 13, two black players for the Bastia team, Pascal Chimbonda of Guadalupe and Franck Matingou of Congo, along with their family members, were abused and roughed up in the parking lot following their team's 3-0 loss to rival Saint-Etienne. The incident prompted French players, coaches and referees to don "No to Racism" T-shirts for their game the following week.
• In England, about a week later, Birmingham player Dwight Yorke, who is black, confronted two men in the stands who harassed him during his pregame warm-up drills by making monkey noises and imitating a monkey's scratching. One of the men, who said he was drunk at the time, was fined the equivalent of about $1,900 for the incident and banned from soccer stadiums in England and Wales for five years.
• In the Netherlands last month, a referee, Rene Temmink, for the first time invoked a new rule and stopped a game in The Hague. The crowd had become hostile, chanting, "Temmink, to the gas chamber!" and calling the referee "the whore of Hamas," referring to the Palestinian Islamic militant group. When the Amsterdam team Ajax plays, fans of rival teams typically make a loud hissing noise, to simulate Nazi gas chambers -- a reference to the Ajax team's supposedly Jewish origins.
• In Spain on Nov. 17, during a friendly match between Spain and England, two black players for the English team were subjected to monkey noises and racist slogans chanted by thousands of fans in the 55,000-seat stadium. England protested, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he was "very disappointed." Spanish officials waited a full day before condemning the incident and Spanish newspapers played it down, saying the British press had exaggerated it.
• Also in Spain, on Nov. 23, a Champions League match between Real Madrid and visiting Bayer Leverkusen was disrupted by fans at Madrid's Bernabeu stadium who gave Nazi salutes and made monkey noises whenever Leverkusen's black player, Roque Junior of Brazil, had the ball. On Friday, Europe's football governing body, UEFA, fined Real Madrid the equivalent of about $13,000.
• In Italy, Lazio -- already fined for racist incidents -- was sanctioned by the UEFA on Friday after Pierre Boya, a Cameroonian player for Partizan Belgrade, was subjected to a torrent of monkey noises and grunts from Lazio fans in the stands whenever he had the ball. Belgrade's other black players also came in for abuse from Lazio fans making monkey noises during the Nov. 25 match in Rome. Lazio was ordered by the UEFA to play its next European home match in an empty arena. Partizan Belgrade was fined the equivalent of about $6,900 for misbehavior by its fans.
For some soccer fans who have written to newspapers and Web sites, the incidents are not a sign of racism, but rather of diehard fans rooting for their teams and finding new ways to insult their opponents. And some question whether the problem has grown or whether the news media have just become more sensitive to it.
But to others, including FIFA, the game's international governing body, and UEFA, its European counterpart, as well as politicians, coaches and anti-racism groups, the recent incidents reflect a worrying trend across Europe. At a time of heightened tensions because of growing non-white immigration to Europe, and with overtly racist speech being largely proscribed in polite company, racists and xenophobes appear comfortable airing their views in the anonymity of huge and crowded soccer stadiums -- where they find support, and an echo.
"There's basically a public debate, because Europe is undergoing change," said Piara Powar, president of the group Kick It Out, which was started in England to combat racism in soccer. "In places like Italy and Spain, there's a very one-sided debate about the issue of immigration, and that's been combined with a fear-mongering post-9/11."
With intolerance growing in places such as the Netherlands, where the Nov. 2 murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, allegedly by a Moroccan immigrant, started a wave of retaliatory attacks on mosques, "all of these public debates will spill over into other arenas, like football," Powar said.
"Racism remains part and parcel of wider society, and it's part and parcel of football," said Ken Green, a professor of sports sociology at University College Chester in England. Noting alcohol consumption, intense home team support and perceived bad calls by referees, he said that "all of these things, including heightened racial tension, may well be part of the hierarchy of problems."
The demographics of the sport also play a role. Kick It Out estimates that in professional soccer, about 30 percent of the top-level players in England are black, with the figure slightly less for the rest of Europe. By contrast, there are only a handful of black coaches, referees and front-office staff members, and across Europe, very few black fans are season ticket holders. While Europe is increasingly black and Arab, most fans at stadiums are working-class whites.
"It is fair to say -- and Italy is probably the best place to illustrate this -- the demographics of football fans is still largely working class," Green said. "The lower working class, even though they make up a smaller percentage of the base, make up for well over half to two-thirds of the violent incidents."
One black player, Brian Tevreden, 23, who plays for the Dutch team Emmen, says he finds the unruly fan behavior insulting and will leave the field if he hears taunts in future games. "If they make monkey noises, I will go from the pitch," he said in a telephone interview. "The whole team will walk off the pitch."
Tevreden, who came to the Netherlands from Surinam when he was 6 years old, said that among spectators exhibiting such offensive behavior, "60 percent are racist. I think 30 percent are just trying to be funny."
A spokesman for the Royal Dutch Football Association said his organization was taking the matter seriously. Two months ago, the association passed regulations allowing a referee to stop a match because of excess noise or abuse from fans, said Frank Huizinga. Under the guidelines, the referee will talk to the heads of the competing clubs and consult with local officials before deciding whether a match can continue.
The association is also exploring ways to use technology, either to drown out abusive spectator noise with competing noise or to create a noise-free zone on the field.
British news media expressed outrage about the fan behavior during the Nov. 17 match against Spain, and many said it called into question Spain's bid to host the 2012 Olympics. But some Spanish media said British journalists were exaggerating the incident to cover up for the English team's loss of the game. "Perhaps it was because their team had played so poorly and they wanted to divert attention towards this muddled issue," said the Spanish daily newspaper ABC.
The next day, Spanish officials reacted to the disruptions, but seemed to cast doubt on what really occurred. "I condemn without doubt the racist displays that may have happened," said Education Minister Maria Jesus San Segundo. "These kinds of comments are deplorable and we do not want them to be made at all, either at sporting events or in society in general."
The abuse at the England-Spain match followed an incident involving Spanish team coach Luis Aragones, who used a racial epithet to describe Arsenal player Thierry Henry. Aragones later explained that he was merely trying to motivate one of his own players.
Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, said it was essential that soccer "eradicate the scourge" of racism.
"There is no room whatsoever for racism or discrimination in our sport," he said in a statement. "On the contrary, football is a tool for building bridges and nurturing tolerance. The world is already full of conflict that has its roots in racism and discrimination."
Special correspondents Alexandra Topping in Paris and Misja Pekel in Amsterdam contributed to this report.