Another Major Challenge Facing Soccer’s Efforts To Eradicate Racism

Mario Balotelli reacts to racial abuse from fans. (Credit: Getty Images)

FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, approved a package of reforms meant to address the racism and abuse that permeates international soccer and returned to focus when Kevin Prince Boateng, a Ghanaian midfielder for Italian club AC Milan, walked off the pitch after fans showered him with racial taunts in a friendly match this year. Fans have also targeted Boateng’s teammate, Milan striker Mario Balotelli, and it seems not a month goes by without news of another racial incident at a soccer match somewhere in the world.

FIFA’s efforts face significant challenges, though, and one of them may be that the most common racism isn’t at matches in top-tier leagues like Italy’s Serie A, where Milan plays, or in major international matches. When ESPN The Magazine’s Wright Thompson traveled to Italy to examine the political and social roots of racism in one of soccer’s largest hotbeds, he found Eric Andrews, who plays in Serie D, Serie D, four rungs below the top Italian league and the rough equivalent of A-league baseball in the United States. Black players in top leagues, Andrews said, have “not seen anything” like the racism that persists in the lower levels of soccer:

“Somebody will call me a monkey in front of the referee,” he says. “I turn to the referee and say, ‘Did you hear what he said?’ The referee says I should keep quiet. That is what the referee tells me. Are you kidding me?”

He’s 28 now. People tell him he might still make it, but he knows the truth. His window is closed; he’s too old to change his life with the game that brought him here. Now he plays because he loves the way he feels with a ball at his feet, eyes up, looking ahead. He tries to ignore the monkey chants, and the slurs, even as he notices the abuse is getting worse.

“Boateng has not seen anything,” Andrews says. “He needs to come here. I’ve been experiencing many things.”

Racism, of course, is a major problem in the top leagues, particularly in Italy, where the most violent and virulent racists exist at clubs like Lazio and Roma, as Thompson lays plain in excellent detail. But racism in those matches can be less common and less overt — “During his first three seasons at AC Milan, [Boateng] never was abused,” Thompson writes. “Then he rode a bus to Pro Patria,” where the now-famous walk off the pitch occurred. It is also far more likely to end up in the international spotlight, and now, under the scornful eye of FIFA and the European federation.

The question facing FIFA and its continental and domestic federations is whether it can or will apply the same scrutiny to soccer’s lower leagues, which exist as an afterthought for most soccer fans, regulators, and media. Will racism that occurs on the dusty fields and in the empty “stadiums” that play host to those matches be noticed, monitored, and punished the same way it will be at matches that occur in the international spotlight and spark ugly headlines across the world?

As part of the new guidelines, FIFA wants to place a separate official who will be in charge of noticing racist behavior among players, coaches and fans. It will levy serious fines and penalties, including forfeiture of league points and possible relegation to lower leagues, on clubs that repeatedly exhibit racism. Those penalties, if used correctly, are harsh enough to hopefully reduce that sort of behavior at matches involving large, competitive, and profitable clubs. The challenge will be to ensure that racism is noticed and that penalties are also applied to small clubs in minor leagues. Because while Mario Balotelli and Kevin Prince Boateng make headlines when fans call them monkeys and shower them with bananas, Eric Andrews deserves to take a field free of racism too.