This past week wasn’t a good one for football, as racism reared its ugly head, once again.
On Monday, Arrigo Sacchi, the man who coached AC Milan to two consecutive European Cups and guided Italy to a World Cup final in 1994, claimed that there were “too many black players” on Italian youth teams.
That was followed by an incident in Paris where a small group of Chelsea supporters prevented a black passenger – Souleymane S. – from getting on the metro shortly before Paris Saint-Germain hosted the Londoners in the Champions League round of 16.
Both events have been met with widespread condemnation, but neither of them is particularly shocking. Unfortunately, racism is alive and well, and football has all too often been the avenue through which bigots have spread their hateful vitriol.
There is, of course, a notable difference between both episodes. Sacchi is widely regarded as a managerial great with enormous footballing influence, while the individuals who racially abused Souleymane S. while chanting, “we are racist and that’s the way we like it,” are nothing more than repulsive hooligans.
Nevertheless, they are both a reminder of how ineffectively football has handled racism. Various players have expressed that sentiment. Most notably, Mario Balotelli, who stated that people could discuss the issue ad nauseam, but that “things don’t change that way.” The often-embattled player also added that he would walk off the pitch if he were ever abused again – something that Kevin Prince Boateng did during a friendly against Pro Patria when still plying his trade with AC Milan.
Cynics may scoff at the suggestion that football could indeed tackle a problem that is endemic in our society – after all, the mere fact that Sacchi (and the Paris metro ruffians) would feel comfortable making such statements in a public forum, speaks to a very serious problem – but football does have the cultural clout to lead the way. It just needs the courage to do so.
Football’s governing bodies (from FIFA to individual federations), as well as football clubs, need to realize that punishments must be severe and merciless. Half measures simply cannot remedy such a serious affliction.
That means that insofar as Sacchi is concerned, it is not enough for football bigwigs and pundits to denounce the Italian. Sacchi’s divisive statements about national identity and color, especially when compounded by his refusal to accept responsibility for them, are more than enough reason to bar him from having any involvement with the Italian Footballing Federation (FIGC).
Up to this point, Chelsea’s response to the events in Paris has been encouraging. The London club immediately put out a statement denouncing the actions of its small group of supporters, and subsequently suspended them from Stamford Bridge. But that can’t be the end of it. Chelsea and other clubs must collaborate with their FA’s to meticulously comb through video footage, and ensure that any supporters found chanting such abuse are never granted entry into another venue, essentially turning them into pariahs.
Chelsea would do well to take the lead on this issue, given that the club’s image has been similarly tainted in past. Including in 2011, when Terry’s four-game suspension for racially abusing QPR’s Anton Ferdinand resulted in slurs being hurled from the stands at his brother, Rio. Unsurprisingly, the chants went unpunished.
The club’s ensuing steadfast support of its captain also left a sour taste in people’s mouths. But at least Chelsea declined to have its players wear t-shirts in support of Terry. The same cannot be said about Liverpool, as the Merseyside club thought it wise to show such symbolic support for Luis Suarez after the Uruguayan used racially charged language against Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.
That unwavering support for both Terry and Suarez is symptomatic of how most clubs haven’t prioritized ridding themselves of racist elements within the game. One only has to see how differently Liverpool reacted when Suarez bit Branislav Ivanovic. Although, biting an opponent is loathsome behavior, one could easily argue racial slurs to be more abhorrent and traumatic. Yet, Suarez’ second disciplinary transgression at Liverpool was quickly condemned by the club’s hierarchy, unlike the first.
If you are wondering what this all has to with the affair in the Paris metro, the answer is a lot.
Clubs are responsible for creating their own culture. Yes, supporters all come with their own beliefs and prejudices, but the inherent clustering that occurs when people choose to identify themselves with a group goes a long way to eroding those traits that don’t fit the group’s identity. Thus, if clubs take serious and overt measures to stamp out racism, it’s fair to believe that their supporters will be much more likely to police themselves, and report disruptive fringe elements.
That in turn can foster a culture where the supporters themselves can be more vocal about what they will and will not accept in their football teams. That’s exactly what happened at the beginning of this season when Sheffield United tried to reinstate convicted rapist, Chad Evans. The club faced strong opposition, including a petition signed by 61,000 people. The message was made clear that reinstating Evans was an implicit attack on women and their role in the game.
The same must happen with racism. Any racist element must be quickly rooted out and banished from the game, no matter where it rears its ugly head. A culture of permissiveness will not only fail to address the problem, but will also ensure its growth.
Follow Eric Krakauer on Twitter @bigsoccerheadny