Racism in football: Where does the buck stop?

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Racism has been the dark underbelly of football for decades. We’ve come a long way since the 1980s, where black players were mercilessly hounded by opposing fans, but despite the efforts to promote anti-racism education campaigns, racism still routinely rears it ugly head.

This week American striker Jozy Altidore – who plays for Dutch club AZ Alkmaar – was the latest player to be subjected to racist chants from opposing supporters.

The chants came in a Dutch Cup game that was postponed, despite Altidore urging the referee to continue the match.

The incident comes just weeks after Kevin Prince Boateng, AC Milan’s heavily tattooed Ghanaian striker, made worldwide headlines when he staged a walk-off after being racially vilified by opposition fans.

Two similar incidents, resulting in very different reactions.

Boateng stopped mid-dribble, picked up the ball and booted it towards the Neanderthals on the terraces, before walking off the field in protest at his treatment.

At once, the brave Kevin-Prince became the king of football.

By contrast, Jozy Altidore bore the brunt of the racist taunts without protest.

After the game, amazingly, the American was philosophical about the incident: “It’s disappointing these things still happen in this time we’re in, but what are you going to do?”

“There’s nothing I can do about it,” Altidore lamented, “all I can do is pray for them and hope they become better people.”

Altidore is either a fountain of forgiveness or is simply not taking the issue seriously enough. For him to show such a level head is baffling.

But it also raises an interesting question: how best to tackle racism? And to what extent should players themselves be involved in the protests?

In 1988, John Barnes responded by back-heeling the bananas thrown at him off the field.

Recently in Australia a racist fan was banned for two years for heckling Wellington Phoenix striker Paul Ifill.

The Barbadian did his best to continue the match, and later used Twitter to thank the police and the FFA for acting “promptly and professionally” in punishing the Adelaide man.

In fact, Australian football has a proud history when it comes to black players.

During the 1960s, a group of Aboriginal footballers including Charles Perkins, Gordon Briscoe and John Moriarty all excelled in state competitions around the country.

Perkins was adamant that he never felt any prejudice from ‘new Australians’ involved in the game. It was a view echoed by Harry Williams, who was a part of the dominant St. George Budapest side in the 1970s.

Football in this country is still yet to have it’s own ‘Nicky Winmar’ moment.

Still, the recent incident in Adelaide, however isolated it may be, is worth monitoring.

One would hope that if Ifill had walked off the field, he would have received unanimous support from the FFA.

Unlike FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who despite promises of “zero tolerance” when dealing with racism, criticized walk-offs as a solution, suggesting that Boateng “ran away.”

Blatter has also in the past suggested that racism can be resolved by a handshake. It’s an old politicians trick – shake your head gravely and speak in platitudes, but do very little to actually address the problem when it comes up.

If Blatter was serious about zero tolerance, he should have immediately made his support clear for Kevin-Prince Boateng. By questioning the victim, Blatter missed an opportunity to set a precedent.

While the Italian Federation has since punished the offending fans by forcing their side Pro Patria to play one game behind closed doors, the dithering of the FIFA president had football fans wondering about the game’s leadership.

Clearly, Blatter is of the view that incidents such as these should be handled after the match, and heavy sanctions should act as a deterrent, not the stoppage of play.

There is, of course, a danger that footballers may exploit the issue to stage a walk-off when their team is losing. But this kind of mentality implicitly blames the victims.

Indeed, we’d be wise to remember that this is an issue that transcends football.

It’s all very easy for the President of FIFA to encourage black players to simply shake hands with their tormentors and get on with it.

But why should players like Jozy Altidore or Kevin-Prince Boateng have to get on with it?

If they do decide to turn the other cheek, all power to them. But it’s a decision that should be left up to them, not dictated to them by a Swiss bureaucrat.

Expecting players to simply ignore racism only trivialises its impact.

We’re still yet to see a walk-off in a high-profile competitive match. But the time will surely come.

With the tempestuous Mario Balotelli likely to join Boateng at Milan, it may come sooner rather than later.

Balotelli, who is an Italian by birth, has been subjected to chants like “there is no such thing as a black Italian” in his own country.

Balotelli has been vocal in his opposition to racism. He, like Boateng, refuses to turn the other cheek.

In 2009, Balotelli remarked “it’s a shame that everyone is more upset with me than the people yelling at me.”

Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini would do well to heed Balotelli’s words. Blaming the victim gets us nowhere.

Kicking racism out of football should not be a passive struggle, and old white men certainly shouldn’t set its parameters.

Joe Gorman is a football journalist with a particular interest in sports history. After completing his thesis on football in Australia, Joe started with The Roar in October 2012. He tweets from @JoeGorman_89.
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