The recent cases of racism all over the soccer world, such as the one suffered by Italian player Mario Balotelli when his team, Brescia, visited Hellas Verona, or the offenses received by Brazilian players Taison and Dentinho of Shaktar Donetsk (Ukraine), by fans of Dinamo Kiev, reminds us that we are facing a problem that is poorly treated by the media and sports institutions alike.
After hearing the racist chants, Balotelli rebelled by kicking the ball at the Verona fans stand, were they were taunting him, and withdrew from the field for a few minutes. Taison extended his middle finger to Dinamo’s supporters, receiving red card for doing so.
Anyone familiar with football culture quickly realized that Balotelli’s and Taison’s actions were linked to the well-documented, institutional racism that persists throughout the sport of soccer.
In Brazil, where the population is mostly Black and Brown, racism against players and football coaches is also a sad and persistent reality – in fact, almost half of Black players from the four top divisions of the national league have been victims of racism. From racist slurs directed at specific players during matches to the virtual absence of Black coaches in the country’s top league, racism is deeply ingrained in the sport.
Over 55,8 percent of Brazil’s population identifies either as Black (9.3 percent) or Brown (46.5 percent), also the majority of soccer players in the South American country are Black or Brown, yet only two coaches among the 20 teams of the Campeonato Brasileiro (Brazil’s top league) identify themselves as Black – Marcão from Fluminense Football Club, and Roger Machado of Esporte Clube Bahia. It was even worse in 2018, when there was not a single Black coach among the 40 clubs in the first and second divisions of the Brazilian Championship. In the state of São Paulo, out of 48 clubs competing in local championships, only 10% of the coaches are Black or Brown.
The first Black coach to win the Brazilian championship, Jorge Luís Andrade da Silva, took over Clube de Regatas Flamengo in 2009 and got fired eight months later, despite winning 32 matches out of 51, with 10 draws and only 9 losses. Andrade had just qualified Flamengo for the Round of 16 of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s intercontinental championship, but days later, his team lost the final of the Rio de Janeiro state Carioca Championship – despite having been the team to accumulate more points during the competition.
Andrade said he was fired for political reasons, because he took over as coach during the tenure of a president of the club who ended up losing the elections right after winning the Brazilian Championship.
And by “politics,” see “racism”.
Racism is reflected “in the low number of Black coaches, Black managers and Black sports journalists,” says sports journalist Bruno Bonsanti. According to a recent survey by globoesporte.com, 48 percent of Brazil’s players from the first through third national divisions claim to have been targets of racist acts, with almost all of these incidents taking place in soccer stadiums. And nearly 90 percent of those players said they do not feel comfortable denouncing the racism publicly.
In October, Machado spoke out against racism in Brazil beyond the pitch, shining a light on a broader issue plaguing the country that largely exists in the margins.
“The greatest prejudice I ever felt was not one of insult. I feel that there is racism when I go to the restaurant and there is only me as Black,” Machado said. “In the college I went to, I was the only one Black. That’s the proof for me. But even so, quickly, when we speak about [racism], people still try to say: ‘There is no racism, you see? You’re here’. No, I’m proof that there’s racism because I’m here.”
To Machado, we are facing an even deeper issue, one of structural racism, meaning that both the football structure and Brazilian society are contaminated to the point that small and isolated initiatives won’t change anything.
Yet, punishments are rare. In only one case was a club properly punished for its fans’ racism. In 2014, Grêmio Foot-Ball Porto Alegrense was excluded from the Brazil Cup, the second most important tournament in the country (the Campeonato Brasileiro being the first), because of racist chants its fans directed at Black Santos FC goalkeeper Aranha.
However, what do you do when racist chants are so common? Racism in Brazil is an unassailable crime, yet rarely are fans and racist individuals punished. Clubs do not usually take responsibility for the actions of their fans, limiting themselves to issuing empty repudiation notes that do little.
Today, the Brazilian football federation works with FIFA’s three-step racism protocol, but that’s far from enough, says Bonsanti. “UEFA’s three-strikes protocol that in practice allows fans to be racist twice before anything actually happens,” explains Bonsanti.
Maybe clubs should lose points, pay heavy fines, promote campaigns, as well as identify and ban fans who take part in any racist actions from entering any stadium nation-wide. Relegation, the dropping of a team to a lower division, is another possibility. Too drastic? Maybe, but a firm stance, nevertheless.
“The time has come for more drastic measures, such as loss of points or summary exclusion of league teams. Maybe it doesn’t work either, but it’s better than keep trying to do the same things and expecting different results,” says Bonsanti.
Also, players should make a stand and stop playing while fans are chanting racist slurs, or until those fans are removed from the stadium.
Balotelli was convinced to return to the game last week, but his teammates should have left the pitch in solidarity and refused to complete the match, just as Verona should have been slapped with not only a heavy fine, but with the loss of points and to play with their gates closed at least until the end of the championship.
“It is important that federations and clubs take a stand against racism in the first place, [yet] this rarely happens,” says Felipe Lobo, editor at the sports website Trivela.
In addition, Lobo says tougher punishments are needed. “Firstly, in a criminal sphere: racist demonstrations need to be individualised and punished in the civil sphere. Of course this is the role of the authorities, not the federations or clubs, but they can help if they work to identify and demand punishment from those responsible. Federations and clubs can cooperate with this with attitudes and by joining entities that work to combat racism.”
Finally, the culture must be changed from within. Black goalkeepers, for instance, are seen as inferior, less skilled, and that’s something that must change. There is, for instance, a persistent behaviour or even a “culture” of believing black goalkeepers are inferior to whites. Brazil’s goalkeeper at the 1950 World Cup, Barbosa, was unfairly blamed for the goal that gave Uruguay the cup that year and that persecution remains a thorn in Brazil’s football soul.
Bonsanti says that it is “not fair to put the burden of solving a problem that exists in all areas of society on football – nor is it fair to demand that football stop public violence. [Football] will never be responsible for the definitive end of racism, but it can and must help and try to eradicate it from its own environment, and in this the authorities have historically failed.”
Players need to start standing up against racism alongside clubs and federations – as well as the media – demanding firm action, even taking matters into their own hands. “Any measure only becomes effective with serious punishments, otherwise, nothing will change,” said Lobo.
About the Author
Raphael Tsavkko Garcia (website) is a freelance journalist. His work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, World Politics Review, Foreign Policy, PRI and The Intercept. He also holds a PhD in Human Rights from the University of Deusto. You can find him on Twitter: @Tsavkko_intl