In the space of seven days, three different soccer players, in three different parts of the world have all encountered racism. There might be even more who we’ve not heard of – or who didn’t feel like saying anything. It is time for the game’s authorities to act strongly and ruthless against those who transgress – and those who ignore their complaints. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
Last week, Ghanaian Sulley Muntari was racially abused while trying to do his job. For Munari, and other black players, this was not the first time they have had to deal with these issues. Muntari – and other black players – often just get on with things when they are being verbally abused. But on this occasion, Muntari had enough.
In a Series A match between Pescara and Cagliari, Muntari was given two yellow cards for standing up to racism. Muntari tried to reason with the fans abusing him, but they would not let up. In the second half, he asked the referee to intervene. Instead of listening to Muntari, referee Daniele Minelli gave him a yellow card. Muntari walked off the pitch in protest and the ref gave him another yellow.
The two yellow cards mounted to a red and an automatic one-game ban. The ban was eventually overturned, but in the days that followed, Muntari spoke candidly about the ordeal and how he was treated by the Italian FA.
“The last few days have been very hard for me. I have felt angry and isolated. I was being treated like a criminal. How could I be punished when I was the victim of racism?
“I hope my case can help so that other footballers do not suffer like me. I hope it can be a turning point in Italy and show the world what it means to stand up for your rights.
“This is an important victory to send a message that there’s no place for racism in football, or society in general.”
In an interview with CNN more than a week after the incident, Muntari was still visibly emotional.
“I couldn’t take it any more, I’m human,” he said in the interview.
Muntari is not the first player to walk off the pitch in protest of racism. In 2013, Kevin Prince Boateng did exactly the same thing. Last week,South Africa’s own Benni McCarthy also opened up about racist abuse he encountered while playing overseas. He told the BBC that there were occasions where the “whole stadium” would make monkey noises.
This problem is not new. It is not even isolated to one specific place – although, it is worse in some regions than others. This problem is also not going away. Yet, last year, Fifa disbanded its racism task force saying that its job was “done” – because the special team had made a few recommendations.
Some of those recommendations have since been implemented, including an “Anti-Discrimination Monitoring System” to assess 850 high-risk matches for potential discriminatory incidents during the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and friendlies.
But little is being done to curb the problem at club level.
Minelli’s refusal to take Muntari’s complaints seriously expresses an attitude which sadly remains common, namely that black players should learn to put up with racial abuse and perhaps regard it as an inevitable annoyance, like injuries or bad luck in front of goal.
Over the weekend, Juventus’ Medhi Benatia cut an interview short after hearing a racist slur in his earpiece. Boca Juniors player Frank Fabra was in tears following racist abuse when Boca played Estudiantes. Like Muntari, players asked the referee to stop play, but the referee said that the insults were “isolated”.
The trend isn’t hard to spot and stamping out racism in soccer – or at least turning the screws on it – has to begin with referees. Mostly white referees refusing to listen to black players and their concerns is perhaps reflective of broader society where people of colour are constantly being told that they are “too sensitive” on matters of race. Instead of engaging in constructive discourse, people of colour routinely have their concerns dismissed. It’s not surprise that mostly white referees brush off players’ concerns as “just banter” or being “isolated incidents”.
Muntari has said that he has no regrets about walking off and said that he would have no problem doing so again. He also encouraged other black players who experience the same to follow suit and said that he feels Fifa and Uefa are not taking the problem seriously. Both bodies issued nicely-worded statements after the incident.
Fifa said that they would “like to express full solidarity with Muntari”, adding: “any form of racism on or outside the field is totally unacceptable and has no place in football. As to the disciplinary consequences, this falls under the jurisdiction of the relevant national body,” it added.
Read that statement again and ask yourself whether those are really the words of somebody in “full solidarity”. Fifa is the governing and controlling body of the sport – padding around the issue is not the best way to get the message across.
The good news is that Fifa might yet punish the Italian FA for the way they dealt with the matter. Fifa secretary-general Fatma Samoura told BBC Sport that there is a “committee in charge of monitoring” the Muntari case and that it “has to act soon”, but if previous cases are anything to go by, the action is hardly going to be severe.
But what happens the next time a black player is abused and his or her concerns ignored?
We might never eradicate racism completely – not in sport or in society – but those who hold positions of authority do have the power to take a much stronger stance. Fifa can – and should – start being more ruthless in the way it punishes offenders. And it should ensure that referees act accordingly, too.
Fines are no longer a sufficient detractor for clubs to control their fans. It is time for strong sanctions against those who transgress. Dock points and force clubs to play behind closed doors, because if you can’t behave like a good and respectful human being, you can’t have nice things. DM
Photo: Pescara’s Sulley Muntari (C-R) was booked by referee Daniele Minelli (C-L) during the Italian Serie A soccer match between Cagliari Calcio and Pescara Calcio at Sant’Elia stadium in Cagliari, Sardinia island, Italy, 30 April 2017. Pescara’s Muntari was banned for one match after protesting against racist abuse from the home crowd. The Ghanaian midfielder was booked for complaining about the abuse before walking off the pitch which earned him a second yellow card. EPA/FABIO MURRU
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