Soccer must show zero tolerance for intolerance

Racism and bigotry in soccer probably never went away. They've just been hiding under a slime-plated stone, waiting for the right political climate to crawl out and show us again that, if you drop your guard for five minutes, ignorance will thrive again like bacteria in a neglected wound. Meanwhile, soccer clubs and institutions continue reacting to bigots in such a spineless manner that recurrent incidents have become the guaranteed outcome.

Here are some recent cases where it can be argued that not enough is being done to show that the game is taking seriously its ongoing problems with expressions of mindless hate.

Italy: Spectators at Serie A team Cagliari have aimed racist abuse, boos and monkey chants at former Juventus midfielder Moise Kean (April of this year), and Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku (earlier this month). Kean was told by his teammate Leonardo Bonucci that he was "50% responsible" for the chants because, after scoring against Cagliari, he stood in front of his tormentors with outstretched arms. Lukaku was told by Inter fans defending their counterparts in Cagliari not to interpret racist chants as racist, it's just fans trying to make their opponents nervous. An Italian journalist was banned from a TV show this weekend after saying the only way to stop Lukaku was with bananas.

Kean moved to England in the summer to play for Everton. Racism in England seemed to have become less of a problem in recent times, but the internet -- in combination with a poisonous national atmosphere prompted by the country's baffling decision to leave the EU -- has fostered new levels of xenophobia. Both Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford of Manchester United were subject to noxious reactions on Twitter after missing penalties, and Pogba has been particularly active in calling on his fellow professionals to speak out more against such abuse. [Clubs like Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have, however, reacted to proven individual cases of racist abuse among fans by banning them for life.]

In Germany, the chairman of Bundesliga club Schalke 04, Clemens Tönnies, delivered a staggeringly dumb speech last month that's not worth repeating, but which managed to gratuitously insult the entire continent of Africa. Despite all the fine words in every German club's constitution about equality, fairness and tolerance, Schalke merely suspended him for three months. A German federation commission then somehow managed to conclude that Tönnies is "not a racist." Presumably by playing rock-paper-scissors.

Third division club Chemnitzer FC, meanwhile, bravely attempted to tackle a long-running problem with a large swathe of neo-Nazi supporters. In August they summarily sacked striker Daniel Frahn for his public proximity to the far-right scene, but director Thomas Sobotzik resigned this month after deciding that the resultant barrage of insults and threats of violence are not worth the price of staying in his job. "I would have been prepared to have a down-to-earth discussion with our more radical fans," he declared, "but that was just never going to happen." Good luck to the next man or woman brave enough to take that job.

On to France, where referee Clement Turpin last month had the courage to suspend action during the game between Nice and Marseille due to homophobic banners and chants from the Nice fans. He resumed the game once the banners were removed. And how much support did he receive from the French federation head Noël le Graët? Precisely none. "Stopping games [for this] doesn't interest me," said le Graët. "It's a mistake." Presumably, like the Inter fans, he sees toxic messages as part and parcel of the game's "banter."

Finally, in this sorry catalogue of Stone Age attitudes, we move to Iran, where women are not allowed to attend games. Sahar Khodayari, 29, was so keen to see her team, Esteghlal Tehran, last March that she defied the ban by dressing up as a man. She was caught and, earlier this month, when she heard in court that she could face half a year in prison for her 'crime,' doused herself with an flammable liquid and then set herself alight. Ninety percent of her skin burned off and she died from her wounds a few days later.

Let's take this last example of how soccer could react. In its list of objectives, the statutes of FIFA state that the body will "use its efforts to ensure that the game of football is available to and resourced for all who wish to participate, regardless of gender or age." It also promises commitment "to respecting all internationally recognized human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights." So, simply, it should ban Iran from all international soccer competitions until it allows women to attend games, citing the above manifesto (from August 2018).

Manchester United could boycott Twitter until the social media company acts to extinguish the choral idiocy its platform offers to anonymous bigots. Players need to stand more publicly behind their teammates, unlike Leonardo Bonucci. Soccer bodies need to fully back referees like Turpin who have the conviction to do what is right, and close stadiums where racist and homophobic chants have become the norm. Club officials like Clemens Tönnies need to be banned from the game for life.

At present there are just not enough serious signals from those who matter, which is why we find ourselves in a repeat cycle of depressing incidents. Bigotry is not freedom of speech, it's a crime. Instead of making excuses, soccer needs to step up and punish it. The game needs to show zero tolerance for intolerance.

(Ian Plenderleith is a coach and referee in Germany's amateur and youth leagues. He holds the Uefa C-License and coached youth soccer in Maryland from 2004-2014. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)

21 comments about "Soccer must show zero tolerance for intolerance".
  1. James Madison, September 16, 2019 at 2:45 p.m.

    Bavo, Ian!!

  2. Wooden Ships, September 16, 2019 at 2:46 p.m.

    Well said Ian.

  3. John Soares, September 16, 2019 at 3:08 p.m.

    Excellent article....Now for some action!?

  4. R2 Dad, September 16, 2019 at 3:23 p.m.

    "Bigotry is not freedom of speech, it's a crime." I agree, but part of the challenge is that many countries don't have a special class of legal infractions (or their equivalent) called Hate Crimes. The clubs have to threaten lifetime bans to ensure good behavior AND speech, which thankfully is much easier to do in this day of camera saturation.
    If clubs and FIFA can't manage this, the confederations and leagues must, no matter the country's legal system. No player should be exposed to these types of depravations.

  5. schultz rockne, September 16, 2019 at 3:34 p.m.

    Next up: banning Mexican national teams from playing in U.S. stadia until further notice due to the widespread insistence of their fans to scream the slur puto at each of the opponent's goal kicks.
    I suppose the first step--much like at Nice--would be for the referee to stop these matches and then suspend the game if/once the chants continue. It would also be groundbreaking to see Mexico play their home qualifiers/competitive matches behind closed doors--likely a further step.

  6. beautiful game, September 16, 2019 at 3:54 p.m.

    FIFA does a lot of talk and intolerance and bigotry, but is far short of doing the walk. It claims of not being political, depending on the price of course.

  7. frank schoon, September 16, 2019 at 3:58 p.m.

    Good article, and i'm glad we don't have the problem in our stadiums like they do in Europe. But your political opinion on Brexit ,to call people xenophobic who support leaving the EU which I hope Holland would also do, has no place in this bigoted response of yours......

  8. Wooden Ships replied, September 16, 2019 at 5 p.m.

    Good point on Brexit Frank. 

  9. frank schoon replied, September 16, 2019 at 5:25 p.m.

    Ships, I'm so sick and tired of people calling others names ,like xenophobe ,or whatever phobia when disagreeing politically. This sickness is someting new that has come about in the past 10 years in the US . I find it un-american, immature and irrational. I have no time for people like that.....

  10. Kent James replied, September 17, 2019 at 1:16 a.m.

    One of the big motivations for Britain to leave the EU is to stop the free movement of people into Britain because they don't want so many immigrants. Isn't that xenophobic?  Aren't these chants an example of that?  Maybe the fans don't mean to be racist, or, as some have argued, they don't believe in the racist attitudes they're expressing, they're just trying to help their team by hurting the play by their opponents any way they can, but whatever the case, I applaud the efforts to elilminate the expressions of these atittudes from the game.  

  11. frank schoon replied, September 17, 2019 at 6:42 a.m.

    Kent, I don’t believe in free movement of people from country to country and neither do I believe in open borders. I believe in a more regulated approach to things. But to twist this somehow in terms of xenophobia I find insulting, especially when i’m An immigrant myself.  regardless of what my opinion is  
    or Ian’s or yours, I respect your opinion or anyone else on those things ,but my respect ends when you start to accuse and call others names because they don’t agree with you.  It is a sick trait and one particular political party and its followers in this country tends to thrive on this...

  12. Kent James replied, September 18, 2019 at 12:21 a.m.

    Frank, calling Ian's statement  ("but the internet -- in combination with a poisonous national atmosphere prompted by the country's baffling decision to leave the EU -- has fostered new levels of xenophobia." bigoted, is uncalled for.  How is calling something bigoted different than calling it racist?  Aren't they two sides of the same coin?  People who are nationalist in Britain tend to support Brexit, and since the idea of Brexit has been discussed, there has been a rise in xenophobic incidents (like the examples cited by Ian).  They are clearly related.  Now I will grant you that not everyone who supports Brexit is racist or xenophobic (I assume you fall into this group), but I think you'll need to concede that there is a large overlap. 

  13. Ian Plenderleith replied, September 18, 2019 at 3:58 a.m.

    Hi Frank, I did not say people who voted for Brexit are xenophobes, but that the post-Brexit climate has fostered an rise in publicly expressed xenophobia - we have seen an alarming increase in violent racist attacks in the UK, and the mainstream legitimisation of anti-foreigner rhetoric (via media and politicians) has emboldened racist language in social media (cf. Rashford/Pogba as just one example).

  14. uffe gustafsson, September 16, 2019 at 5:23 p.m.

    Great article, you forgot Russia they are on the level of Italians in monkey calls and so on.
    the one thing I always find ludecruze is having the captains of each team reading from a piece of paper denouncing homophobia. It does feel contrite and not very real. Its like see we are doing something about it but 2 minutes later it’s forgotten.
    the ref who stopped the game is a hero that actually took those statements for real.  

  15. Bob Ashpole, September 16, 2019 at 5:37 p.m.

    Bias is a difficult and complex area.

    In some sports--baseball comes to mind--banter is an accepted part of the game.

    Banter is not fair play in soccer and therefore doesn't belong in the sport.

    Participants are prohibited from insulting other participants. Fans should not be allowed to insult either.

  16. Kent Pothast, September 16, 2019 at 11:41 p.m.

    Juat finished your NASL book. My wife and I werre at Pele's last game in Portland.Have ticket stub.
    One of problems with the Objectionable Words in whatever language is used is that while many words are easily objectionable, we will never get rid of the problem of changes in meaning or interpretation. In my 82 years words have modified their meaning. Either as a general acceptance or by the meaning assigned to a word by some segments of the population without consulting the rest of us. There are words that are used with different meanings by different people. Who decides on what words are banned?

  17. Ian Plenderleith replied, September 18, 2019 at 4 a.m.

    Thanks for reading the book, Kent. Hope you enjoyed it! 

  18. schultz rockne replied, September 18, 2019 at 6:29 p.m.

    Answer: educate yourself and those around you. Naturally, language evolves. I had a grandmother who would use the term 'colored' to refer to black/African American people. Even as a six year-old in 1980, I knew that this term, in this context, was unacceptable (not just "objectionable"). Why? Because I had black and brown friends, classmates, teammates and I had the sneakiest gut feeling that they would not want to be identified in such a primitive manner. And frankly, they--just like me--were just people, regardless of skin tone. While I prefer to assume that humans err on the "thoughtful" side of things, I acknowledge that this sort of evolution does not touch everyone. 
    I might advise reading some James Baldwin and/or Toni Morrison (L-town!), listening to Marvin Gaye or a lecture by Prof. Cornel West, and spurning politicians/leaders/full-grown adults who display a limited knowledge of the diversity of human life on earth and and an inability to discuss that diversity respectfully. Cuz guess what--it ain't gettin' any less diverse! Heck, come and visit the southside of Chicago. If nothing else, watch (and listen to) the great Pelé shout the most important words in Giants' Stadium in 1977: "LOVE. LOVE. LOVE!"

  19. Bob Ashpole replied, September 19, 2019 at 10:38 a.m.

    Schultz, in the long run using a politically correct term to distinguish people by skin color is not helpful. It is merely polite, not a culture change.

  20. Ginger Peeler, September 17, 2019 at 1:28 p.m.

    Frank...You’ve gotten yourself upset because you thought  Ian was calling those folks who were in favor of Brexit xenophobic. But, he did NOT call people who favored Brexit xenophobic. He was stating that TWITTER had been going wild since the decision to leave the EU was made. He DIDN’T say anything about which way people were tweeting ... for or against. Just that Twitter had “fostered new levels of xenophobia.” And then he Illustrates a “noxious” tweet. 

    Perhaps we’ve been free of it in soccer, but xenophobia, racism, bigotry, etc have been a part of our United States culture for a very long time. And I totally agree with you that it’s immature and irrational. My dad was born a Californian, but the Air Force kept stationing him in the south for most of his 30 years: Texas, Alabama, Florida. The base schools were integrated, but a lot of bases had no schools so my sister and I attended segregated schools and lived in the natives’ segregated societies. Integration is relatively new in terms of the length of time the USA has existed. And the bad stuff can still manage to come out from under that slimy rock. 

  21. frank schoon replied, September 17, 2019 at 1:55 p.m.

    Ginger, <" in combination with a poisonous national atmosphere prompted by the country's baffling decision to leave the EU -- has fostered new levels of xenophobia.">
    Ian's opinion on Nationalistic feelings and tying that to xenophobia is likewise an opinion of his that I totally disagree. I have Nationalistic feelings for America and I can understand, and appreciate feelings of nationalistism of those in other countries. I don't feel or recognize their  xenophobia or what Ian describes as "poisonous", but instead love for their culture and country. 
    But apparently today, their is a movement abound by those who want to downgrade others who have feelings of Nationalism for their country. Respecting people or other human beings of different countries or walks of life, or opinions has to do with upbringing, soul development, human inner development, growth in level of consciousnuess of the individual and not due to some stupid ideology that has to do with Nationalism.

     And as far as " xenophobia, racism, bigotry, etc have been a part of our United States culture for a very long time. ", 
    perhaps if you judge America in a vacuum but I got news for you  it is a lot worse everywhere else, just look at what goes on in Europe. Nothing is perfect, but xenophobia, racism, bigotry, etc, is a human fault or traite which can be found in any race, culture, any country . The point is we do something about here and we are way ahead in the game on improving this situation.

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