By Brendan Duball
Try and think of the worst sports fans in America – Philadelphia Eagles fans are notorious for attacking a harmless Santa Claus with snowballs in 1968, San Fransisco Giants fans literally stab rival fans in the parking lot after games, Chicago White Sox fans attacked Royals first base coach causing him to lose hearing in both of his ears, even Philadelphia Phillies fans have had an issue with intentionally vomiting on each other.
European soccer fans make American sports fans seem polite.
The horribleness of sports fans in Europe is on a whole other level. Deliberate, extensive racism has plagued European soccer for decades, and in the 21st century, times are unfortunately not changing for the better. While soccer is attempting to develop as a popular sport in America with the help of the recent success of the Women’s and the past success of the Men’s US National Soccer teams, soccer is basically a religion for European fans. Soccer fans in Europe, commonly known as ‘Hooligans,’ represent their teams to the most extreme measures; supporters of these clubs participate in violent, destructive behavior during every one of their favorite club’s matches. Brawls and vandalism are common after matches, but during these matches racism is so common that it has almost become expected from these fans.
These racist fans systematically frame players from different nations as unwanted, worthless and problematic. Entman defined framing as “selecting some aspects of perceived reality and making them more salient in a communicating text.” In this case, racist fans believe players from different nations playing for either their favorite team or for rival teams are a problem and chose to verbalize their harmful opinions and carry out disgusting acts during matches. Frames “highlight some bits of info about an item that is the subject of a communication, thereby elevating them in salience. Frames call attention to some aspects of reality while obscuring other elements, which might lead audiences to have different reactions.” But framing isn’t always a tool that benefits both the audience and the subject; while positive framing isn’t associated with risk, negative framing is very risky. Not only is negative framing risky, but it can be mentally and psychologically damaging for the subject; in this case it’s the European soccer plays who are currently under attack from racist fans. In almost every European soccer league – Serie A, Ligue A, Liga BBVA – racist remarks and racist acts have framed players to be monsters, when in reality it is those who are making these remarks and carrying these acts out who are the monsters.
In 2014 in Spain during a match between FC Barcelona and Villareal CF, Brazilian player Dani Alves was the subject of one of the many racist acts occurring in European football. While setting up to take a corner kick, a banana thrown by a fan landed right in front of Alves as he began to run into the kick. Before taking the actual kick, Alves reached down, peeled the banana and took a bite of it. While Alves had a surprisingly initial humorous reaction to the act, he tweeted after the game that he appreciated the potassium for helping with cramps, the comments he made in the postgame conference were completely deflating. “These kinds of stunts are hardly new. The fight against racism in Spain is a lost cause,” Alves said. Sadly, this isn’t the first time Alves has been targeted in racist acts; in 2013 during a match against Real Madrid, fans targeted Alves with monkey chants. Following the game, Alves revealed that again, these acts weren’t random; “I know that things are being done to fight against this, but it still takes place…For me it is a lost war. I have been in Spain for 10 years and it has happened since the first day.”
Following the banana incident in 2014, an enormous outpouring of support from fellow footballers sparked a movement on social media with the hashtag “#somostodosmacacos” which translates to “We are all monkeys.” Spanish fans commonly use ‘Macaco’ as a derogatory term aimed at black players, so the use of the hashtag essentially changed the way racist fans framed black football players.
National icon Neymar posted a picture of himself and his son eating bananas on Instagram in support of Alves. Manchester City striker and Argentinian national player Sergio Aguero posted a picture of himself and Brazilian star Marta eating bananas on Twitter with the caption “With my colleague Marta from Brazil we say #NoToRacism. We are all equal.” Napoli winger and Belgium national player Dries Mertens also chimed into the cause with a picture of himself eating a banana on Twitter with the caption “Great reaction by Dani Alves. Respect! #weareallmonkeys #SayNoToRacism” The responses from all of these famous soccer players represent a movement against racism in sports, one that can garner attention from a wide audience since the players supporting the fight against racism are national icons.
These footballers collectively utilized counterframing in the #weareallmonkeys movement to the damaging effects that came from fans framing them as lesser human beings. Alves, Neymar, Aguero and all of the other athletes participating in this movement are opposing the previous, widely-used frame implemented by the fans. The counter-frame they use is one of equality among football players of all races, advocating for the opposite position of racist comments coming from the crowds. There is incentive in this case to create a counterframe; the initial frame by fans has damaged the mental well-being of the athletes at the center of the attacks, so these players took it into their own hands to make their discomfort heard.
In 2013, Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng experienced similar racist chants during a ‘friendly’ match in the duration of the club’s winter break. While Alves flawlessly responded to his tormenters with humor, Boateng simply had enough; halfway through the first half Boateng had possession of the ball in the corner of where his tormenters were located. Boateng picked up the live ball, kicked it in the crowd where racist slurs were spewing from and began to walk off the field. As Boateng walked off the field, he removed his jersey to a breakout of applause from the majority of the crowd. Boateng applauded back at them, his team followed him off the field and the game was cancelled. There is always a point where the tantalizing chants reaches a point where it cannot be tolerated anymore. By abruptly walking off the field in the middle of a live game, Boateng showed the officials of UEFA that ‘ignoring’ and ‘playing through’ the constant racist slurs thrown at players during live games is not possible.
Unfortunately, it was only a friendly match, one that had no significance. Had this occurred during a league match, one that has actual implications, it would be a major statement. The fans chanting these slurs from the crowd clearly haven’t learned the mental and psychological damage that they cause, so Boateng took matters into his own hands and took a stand. Italian Newspaper La Repubblica commended Boateng for his stand, calling it; “the only just and reasonable act we have seen in decades of barbarised football.” Boateng took his stand to another level when he visited the United Nations to discuss the widespread problem of racism in soccer. Boateng attested to the notion that racism has been cured in his meeting; “It’s not simply an argument for the history channel or something that belongs to the past or something that only happens in other countries. Racism is real, it exists here and now.”
Boateng’s reaction to the constant attacks portrays his countering the previous frames working against him. What’s interesting is that he has the support of the Italian newspaper behind him applauding him for his actions, framing him as heroic and courageous. With support from the newspaper, Boateng can shift the focus of the frame. Both Boateng and the newspaper are in direct opposition to the fans causing the mental damage.
An incident involving Mario Balotelli further illustrates the problem of racism in Italian soccer especially; four months after Kevin-Prince Boateng was racially abused, Balotelli was taunted with monkey chants from Roma fans. Balotelli turned to the abusive fans and held his finger to his lips, signaling for the silence of the racist chants. While the game Boateng walked out on was a friendly, a game that didn’t have any bearing on league standings, the game where Balotelli was tormented in was important for Milan; they could move into a tie for third place in Serie A with a victory. So Balotelli had little opportunity to stand up for himself in a way that wouldn’t penalize his own team, which is undeniably outrageous.
Had Balotelli walked off the field like Boateng did, he likely would’ve been negatively portrayed by the media for leaving his teammates at a disadvantage. In a game that has actual importance, Balotelli can’t stand up for himself like Boateng did in the friendly, simply because of the way he would’ve been framed by all different types of media. In his case, the media is essentially restricting his ability to take a stand with the potential damaging news stories. The fact that the importance of a match has bearing of whether a racially abused player can stand up for himself or not speaks volume about the state that European soccer is in in the fight against racism.
Chelsea F.C. Fans
What may be even more repulsive than the chants coming from the stands are the chants and acts against other fans that are black. Just over a year ago, Chelsea fans were caught on tape taunting a black man and preventing him from entering a train after a Chelsea-PSG match in Paris. While the Chelsea fans claim they pushed the man off the train because the cart was full or because the man was a PSG fan, witnesses say the chants were directly aimed at the man and he was pushed solely because he was black. The fans were heard chanting, “We’re racist, we’re racist and that’s the way we like it” while they pushed the man off the train. Months passed before four Chelsea supporters were identified and banned from soccer matches for five years, but I wonder if this will have any effect on their behavior at all. Gareth Branston, the judge who issued the ban, stated that the group of Chelsea fans “was massive and very loud. It was tribal. It was strewn across the road, halting traffic.” Not only has the chanting at athletes crossed many lines, but now the behavior of these fans has spread to the public.
Year after year the behavior of soccer fans has escalated, and it doesn’t seem like the tormenting will stop anytime soon. The racism isn’t isolated either; the Dani Alves situation occurred in Spain, the Kevin-Prince Boateng and Mario Balotelli incidents occurred in Italy and the Chelsea fans incident occurred in France. EUFA have at least acknowledged that racism is a serious, widespread problem occurring in Europe with the creation of the ‘Not to Racism’ movement in 2001, but the efforts seem largely ineffective as racism is as bad as it’s ever been 15 years later. According to uefa.com, “The No to Racism message aims to increase public awareness of intolerance and discrimination in football, as well as developing ideas and strategies on how to fight them.”
Not only is it important for the organization to recognize that there is a problem, but to be working on solutions and thinking of ways to combat racism in sports is even more important. Making the awareness of the issue rise is essential to finding a solution; once awareness is raised, the creation and implementation of some sort of solution is the only way to the message to the fans. A way to raise awareness is by having the support of famous soccer players that these fans pay to watch on game day every week take a stand and speak out against the issue.
EUFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino acknowledges the importance of the fans understanding that their actions have seriously negative effects to not only sports, but society; “From the start of our fight against racism, it was impressive how many stars, how many players, how many officials have encouraged us, have actively participated. This is very important in terms of awareness.” Kevin-Prince Boateng supports the idea of using star-power to the advantage of the fight against racism; “Many sportsmen like myself and my team-mates, artists and musicians all have unique chances and responsibilities to make themselves heard.”
Awareness may be vital, but until organizations implement some sort of penalization or fining system for clubs and fans that engage in racist attacks; and that’s exactly what UEFA did. UEFA’s zero tolerance policy has implemented “penalties for clubs found guilty of racism include partial or total stadium closures as well as fines that can get well into the six-figure range.” So while UEFA is taking the right strides in effort of completely eliminating racism in soccer, FIFA is soon to follow. FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who himself is not all that trustworthy, says he is worried with the findings of a recent study on racism in Russia, who hold the 2018 World Cup. Pavel Klymenko, a researcher at Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), has accused officials in Russian soccer of neglecting the problem of racism; “The Russian Football Union took some sporadic action last season, sanctioning several clubs for racist behavior. But you can see this disciplinary action was not very consistent.”
It’s unfortunate to have Russia, a place that will soon host the most popular sporting event in the world, has not only “200 cases of racist or discriminatory behavior in Russian soccer in the past two seasons,” according to FARE, but have also done little to nothing to combat the issue.
Some recent comments Football Union general secretary Anatoly Vorobyov made regarding former Arsenal player Emmanuel Frimpong who now plays for Ufa in the Russian Premier League really put the state of racism in Europe in perspective. After Frimpong was given a red card for responding to racial abuse with a middle finger and some words to fans, Vorobyov stated; “The virus that is racism is worse than the virus that is Ebola. Unfortunately it seems that we are unable to find a remedy for it.”