The Ugly Side of a “Beautiful Game”

Earlier this year, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff wrote that Brazil  must “raise the banner of combating racial discrimination” during the World Cup.” Considering the seemingly neverending series of racist incidents on the football pitch, Rousseff’s concern is understandable.

In February, Peruvian fans taunted Tinga Cruise, who plays Brazilian team Cruzeiro, with monkey chants.

In March, Brazilian referee Marcio Chagas da Silva found his car vandalized with banana peels on the windshield.

In April, during a match at Villarreal’s El Madrigal Stadium, a spectator threw a banana at Barcelona defender Dani Alves. In response, Alves picked it up the banana, peeled it and ate it before throwing it to the sidelines. The opposing team was fined $12,000 due to the behavior of its fans. Alves’ teammates showed their support after the incident by creating a social media campaign featuring players eating bananas with the caption “We are all monkeys.”

As Brazil’s Marcelo made a mistake in the World Cup’s opening match with Croatia by kicking the ball into his own team’s net, Brazilians took to Twitter to blame the incident on race. Many tweeted “tinha que ser preto,” or “it had to be a black.”


Italian and French players have also faced similar incidents. Thierry Henry has been notably outspoken about racism in football through his previous work with Nike’s Stand Up, Speak Up campaign. Mario Balotelli’s career is a study in repeated racial slurs.

Lest we think that racism in sports is unique to Europe or Latin America, let us not forget this year’s Donald Sterling fiasco in the United States. How long should these players be expected to tolerate such a pernicious culture of racism? At the pinnacle of success in their careers, why should they endure such a blatant pattern of disrespect?

In light of these incidents, Rousseff, FIFA, and even the Pope have called for an end to racism on the football pitch in 2014. Enough is enough. The World Cup has the potential to set the tone for how we approach football if the players and fans collectively lead by example.

Article 3 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code states:

“Discrimination of any kind against a Country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”

Moreover, players found guilty of discriminatory behavior during games face a minimum 10-game bans. In the past, FIFA has also ordered stadium closures after racist incidents involving football fans.

Despite the epithets that some fans might hurl at players during the World Cup, one cannot deny that stars like Italy’s Mario Balotelli, England’s Danny Welbeck, France’s Paul Pogba, Germany’s Jerome Boateng and Belgium’s Vincent Kompany have contributed enormously to the success of their teams. In fact, according to a recent article in Global Post, when "defining ‘foreigner’ as anyone with at least one foreign-born parent, Switzerland would lose two-thirds of its players. France and the Netherlands might be knocked out of contention. And Algeria, Ghana, Turkey or even Suriname could win it all.”

While Brazilians blamed Croatia’s only goal in their match on Marcelo’s race, did they remember race as they praised Neymar for his two goals?

As the anti-immigrant sentiment contributes to the rise of right-wing European political parties and the political success of David Bratt in the United States, fans would be wise to consider how black players, who have endured ridicule and prejudice on and off the pitch, will contribute to their countries’ success at the World Cup.

Akinyi OchiengComment