Analysis: Alves’ irreverent response to racism – a reminder of a bigger problem

By Antoinette Muller 28 April 2014

Over the weekend, Dani Alves responded to racist abuse from Spanish fans by picking up a banana thrown at him and eating it. It was an irreverent and refreshing reaction, but the fact that these incidents still occur speaks volumes about the incompetence and apathy of several federations. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

Another weekend, another racist incident in football and, most likely, another collective shrug from the sport’s authorities. Barcelona defender, Dani Alves, had a banana thrown at him during Barcelona’s clash against Villareal on Sunday. In response, he picked it up, peeled it and ate it while going about his business taking a corner.

It was a novel and quirky comeback to something that has become far too common, but it is too often met with apathy.

“You have to take it with a dose of humour. We aren’t going to change things easily. If you don’t give it importance, they don’t achieve their objective,” said Alves afterwards.

Alves has a point. Football racists are the real-life equivalent of internet trolls. Some are desperate for a reaction and with the mob mentality which so often engulfs the stands at football grounds, it’s easy to spark a contagion in the crowd. But it’s not as if the problem in football or even in Spain is anything new.

“We have suffered this in Spain for some time,” Alves said.

Spain has a torrid history of racism: Felix Dja Ettien being accused of having malaria or AIDS whenever he felt ill; Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o – and countless of other black players – enduring a chorus of monkey chants. Carlos Kameni, who played over 229 games for Espa?a, was constantly abused with bananas being pelted at him and some fans going so as far as bringing loudhailers into the stadium and bellowing: “You are a son of a bitch, if you are black or orange. Go to the press and tell them this is racism. You are garbage”.

This all while bananas rained down on him. Kameni’s response would always be the same when asked about it. He said that he was made to feel like an animal. The list for Spain – and continental Europe’s issues – when it comes to racism in football is endless.

In 2004, during a training session with the national team ahead of a World Cup qualifier against France, coach Luis Aragonés was heard telling José Antonio Reyes: “Demuestra que eres mejor que ese negro de mierda”, translated as “Show that you’re better than that black shit”. He was referring to Reyes’s then Arsenal teammate, Thierry Henry. Henry said that he had thought it was a joke when he’d first heard about the incident but was subsequently left speechless. Aragonés was fined a mere USD $5,000. He insisted that he had done nothing wrong.

“I cannot understand how this is me. I have black friends, gypsy friends, this is not me. It happens to bother the football players. It’s also done with fat players, we call players fat, it’s the same,” Aragonés said.

And this is one of the biggest problems. For many, the abuse based on the colour of somebody’s skin is not seen as racist. The denial of the problem in Europe’s football leagues is as big as the racist problem itself.  It is often said that only a few individuals causie trouble or that it’s simply the “culture of football” and “football abuse”, quite like Aragonés decreed.

But people are not killed and prosecuted because they are fat, yet this is the mentality that is prevalent among many football fans. Officials have the power to act and do something and while some players like Kevin Prince Boateng have previously protested by walking off the pitch, others are told to get on with it with little action taken afterwards. It is something that has almost come to be expected at certain grounds and intolerance and ignorance is excused as being cultural. Worse yet is that the action from the custodians of the game remains limited.

Alves might have taken a novel approach to taunts, but it speaks far more of the incompetence and the apathy of the federations rather than the problem itself. That players have so often threatened to walk off the pitch or that they have to take the responsibility of irreverence upon themselves is telling.

There has been some global movement to act on racist abuse from players. Racist abuse from a fellow player carries an automatic five-match ban if found guilty, and that counts across the globe. But not nearly enough is being done with regard to fans. The notion that it is only a small number of people causing trouble is unfounded, because there are far too many incidents that crop up repeatedly. For many, these are seen as minor – a banana on the pitch here, a racist chant there – but brushing them aside is doing nothing to change the fabric of a misinformed society.

The beliefs of people and their onions are not going to change overnight. That is something which will take time, through awareness and social integration across generations. However, fans are not all stupid. If tougher sanctions are put in place and enforced by federations, the issues will start to decline.

The Alves incident will become another cult response to racism. For those who are passionate about the cause of equality and eradicating racist abuse, it will be long-remembered. But that should not shift focus from the bigger problem in football leagues: racism is rife and action is needed from those who are in charge of the game. DM

Photo: Barcelona’s Dani Alves (REUTERS/Albert Gea)


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