AC Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng had simply heard enough.
So he picked up the ball, spun and fired it into the stands from which came the chants that unsettled him. Soccer’s ugliest blight had surfaced from underneath all that gloss and denial once more on Wednesday. And Boateng, the proud, mohawked Ghanaian playmaker, would no longer tolerate the racist abuse washing over him and his three black peers on the field.
He stripped off his jersey and slowly walked off, ignoring the pleas from his opponents. And the rest of the members of AC Milan, one of the continent’s most storied clubs, followed their teammate off the field and away from the exhibition game with fourth-tier Pro Patria and its band of bigoted fans. The game was abandoned, just 26 minutes in.
This, sadly, was not an aberration or one-off incident. Rather, it was one of the occasional manifestations of a systemic problem. In Europe, where fascist ideology isn’t yet entirely a thing of the past, such sentiments sometimes emerge at soccer games. Racist abuse of players by opposing fans is depressingly frequent.
In October, an under-21 game between England and Serbia ended in a brawl instigated by racist abuse targeting black English players from the stands. In December, Champions League squad Zenit St. Petersburg fans even wrote an open letter to their own club decrying the signing of Hulk and Axel Witsel, both of mixed race. The club quickly denied and distanced itself from the fans' demands for an all-white team. Several clubs have never fielded black players, while some are shunned by non-white players who either feel or are in fact threatened by racist fans.
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What is rare, however, is for a world-renowned player and his even more famous club to take such an unambiguous and organic stance. Boateng and his teammates, who to their credit didn’t hesitate to follow him off the field, were widely lauded for their actions.
Almost immediately, Belgium and Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, who is half-Congolese and recently said in an interview that he was racially abused at games throughout his childhood in Belgium, took to Twitter. “How about becoming extremely intolerant towards racist idiots?” he wrote. “They need to be told.”
Boateng’s fellow Milan midfielder Ricardo Montolivo, who is white, tweeted of “sympathy for my teammates,” while club director Umberto Gandini declared that he was “very proud” of his players. A club statement explained that “racist chanting from those tiny, tiny people today could not go unpunished” while pointing out that only a minority of fans had participated in the offending chants — according to some reports, they were jeered by their fellow Pro Patria fans as Milan walked off.
“Those who share the color of the heart of Boateng, Sulley Muntari and Mbaye Niang couldn’t take it anymore and decided it was time to teach a lesson to those fools,” the official statement continued. “They were standing up with their ignorance, but it was as if they were under our feet.”
While the outpouring of support was heartening, several stars of previous generations touched on the real issue. Former dreadlocked Netherlands star Ruud Gullit, one of the first famous people to champion Nelson Mandela’s cause in the 1980s, also took to Twitter, saying: “If the officials aren’t supporting the players, individual[s should] act. The message this [would] send out: we will not tolerate this abuse.”
Said commentator and former England striker Gary Lineker: “The longer UEFA fail to do their duty to the game and those who play it, the less likely it is that instances of racism will decrease.”
Indeed, this issue persists because nobody will take ownership of it. Rather, the federations will say it’s up to the authorities, authorities will blame the clubs and the clubs will defer to their federations — or some other variation of this cycle of abdication. Serbia was barely punished for the incident with England. UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, fined the Serbian federation an inconsequential $110,000 — a fraction of the fines handed out for things such as guerilla marketing — and ordered the next under-21 game played without fans.
In fact, when Italian star Mario Balotelli suggested he'd walk off if he was racially abused during Euro 2012 — a tournament in which there transpired several incidents with racist fans — he was told by UEFA's chief Michel Platini that he'd be disciplined for it, that it wasn't up to the players to take action.
But within a culture of impunity on racism, it is left up to the players to draw the line and defend their own dignity. Governing bodies talk the talk, making bombastically announced token gestures — such as informational campaigns on eradicating racism in sport — but fail to act in even the most grievous cases. Indeed, in regards to Wednesday’s incident, the Italian federation responded ambiguously — “No sanction or penalty can erase the disdain for an unjustifiable and intolerable episode,” read the official response — without making clear whether or not it would be cracking down.
In that spirit of buck-passing, Pro Patria’s owner claimed that the fans who had lobbed the racist abuse weren’t part of the club’s regular hardcore group of fans.
Yet the governing bodies have the power to correct and rehabilitate fan behavior. England proved that in the ‘90s, when it doggedly rid its game of rampant hooliganism and racism. Hit clubs hard with sanctions — take away points in the standings or ban all attendance from a number of games — and fans have shown in the past that they will start policing themselves. Failing that, install cameras, create an identification system and ban offenders with zero tolerance.
Do something. Anything.
In cases such as these, inaction is just as damning as racism itself.