European Soccer’s Racist Present

As the world prepares for the first World Cup on African soil, a black American is challenging ongoing racism in European football.

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Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Soccer teams from all over the world are playing right now in South Africa in the Confederations Cup—the group of matches leading up to next year’s World Cup in South Africa. But as teams prepare for 2010’s historic World Cup, the first on the African continent, an important legal case is unfolding in a courtroom in Belgium that may affect one ugly aspect of the game. There, a case filed by Oguchi Onyewu, a member of the U.S. national soccer team and until recently a defender on the Belgium club Standard Liege, is set to be decided, and it may have enormous precedential value.

Onyewu—or “Gooch,” as he’s known by U.S. soccer fans—has sued a white player on the opposing team, Jelle Van Damme, for public insult and criminal defamation stemming from racist comments Van Damme allegedly hurled at Onyewu during a match on May 21. Onyewu alleges that Van Damme called him a “monkey” and may have used other racist language. Van Damme denies the accusation and says he’s not a racist. This is one of the very few instances in which a soccer player has resorted to a civil lawsuit against another player over racist abuse.

Racism in international soccer is a continuing and shameful problem that may come to a head this year before the world’s best players and most ardent fans head to Africa for the World Cup. Players of African descent have been subjected to racist taunts by fans who make monkey noises when black players touch the ball or who throw bananas on to the pitch to taunt black players.

Four years ago, Spain’s national team coach, Luis Aragones, was caught on tape urging his players to play aggressively against “that black s***,” referring to the black star French striker Thierry Henry. Although Aragones was initially fined $87,000 by the Union of European Football Associations, he successfully appealed and the fine was overturned. When French-Algerian soccer super star Zinedine Zidane head-butted Italian player Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final in retaliation for remarks the Italian national player made to Zidane, it was widely assumed that Materazzi’s comments had been racial in nature.

Despite his repeated denials to the contrary, and reports that Materazzi made derogatory comments about Zidane’s mother and sister, many still believe that Materazzi’s remarks were racial in nature. DaMarcus Beasley, another African-American U.S. national team player, has complained of repeated incidents of racist abuse by fans during his time playing for a team in the Scottish Premier League.

What few are willing to acknowledge is the failure of referees and even players to take on a more aggressive role in protecting black players from what has become a hostile work environment. In fact, Onyewu threatened to walk off the pitch only when it became clear that the referee had no intention of punishing Van Damme. Racist language by a player is a red-card violation requiring immediate ejection, according to FIFA rules, which prohibit “abusive, insulting language and/or gestures.”. When a player receives a red card, his team is left with 10 players rather than the standard 11. Furthermore, the ejected player is disqualified from participating in the next league game.

When referees start to aggressively punish racist taunts with red cards, I’m guessing that players will think more than twice before provoking black players in this way. Referees who fail to punish racist provocation should be denied opportunities to referee subsequent high-profile matches and should perhaps themselves be fined.

But the teammates of black players also have a role to play in combating racism on the pitch. Three years ago, teammates of Barcelona star (and Cameroonian native) Samuel Eto’o persuaded him not to leave the game after he exploded in reaction to repeated racist abuse by fans of the opposing home team Real Zaragoza. Likewise, Gooch’s teammates rallied around him to persuade him not to leave the game in Belgium last month. But why should the victims of racist abuse continue playing in this kind of hostile environment? Why, instead, don’t teammates join with the victimized player and collectively walk off the soccer field? That would be a better expression of solidarity than imploring a black teammate to suck it up and play through the pain. And it would show that blatant racism injures all players—white and black alike.

Instead, a world-class player like Eto’o has concluded that because of rampant racism, he can no longer bring his family to games. That is a painful sacrifice that his white teammates need not make. Onyewu’s courageous decision to file a lawsuit has reverberated throughout the world. Some have cited the fact that Gooch is an American with an imposing physical presence as key advantages to his efforts at redress. He hails from a powerful country (although, regrettably, not one that is highly competitive in world soccer) and at 6-foot-4 and 210 muscular pounds, he’s not likely to be vulnerable to physical retaliation from players who may disapprove of his actions.

That Onyewu is American (his parents are Nigerian immigrants) may be an interesting cultural moment in the fight against racism in soccer. Americans, and black Americans in particular, are more likely than citizens of many other countries to see the courts as a powerful forum for the vindication of civil rights. Onyewu’s decision to seek no monetary compensation but only “moral compensation” in the form of an apology reflects an American’s sophisticated sense of how legal challenges can be shaped to produce elegant and effective forms of redress for racism. The young defender should be applauded for his courageous determination to ply his craft in a workplace free of the distraction and degradation of overt racism.

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