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Who's to blame for racism in soccer?

By Dave Zirin and John Cox | June 16, 2006 | Page 13

THE MOST-watched tournament in the universe, the World Cup, opened amid fears that an open and violent racism could upstage the games, humiliate its German hosts, and provide an international platform for neo-Nazi swill.

The rising number of attacks on non-whites in Germany, combined with a spate of racist sloganeering and taunting of Black soccer players throughout Europe, has set the stage for an unprecedented display of racism on a global sports stage.

Hear Dave Zirin speak at Socialism 2006, a political conference scheduled for June 22-25 at Columbia Univerisy in New York City. For more information, go to the Socialism 2006 Web site at socialismconference.org.
The argument here is that the German government and the European Union have only themselves to blame. These are chickens coming home to roost. The sewers where neo-Nazis nestle have been buzzing with the idea of using the World Cup as a political platform since the day Munich was awarded the games.

The German government, however, dutifully ignored the Reich rumblings, preparing instead for the corporate bonanza that accompanies the Cup. Yet the current climate could have been easily predicted if German officials had lifted their faces from the haystacks of Euros or recognize the repercussions of their own rhetoric.

First, there has been the growing pattern of "football racism" across the continent. In late February, Cameroonian FC Barcelona star Samuel Eto'o almost walked off the pitch after being showered by "fans" with monkey chants and peanuts. Last November, Messina's Marc Zoro picked up the ball and threatened to walk off the field because of racist chants from followers of Inter Milan.

These are only the most well-publicized stories. There are countless tales of players of African origin being treated, in the words of one, "worse than dogs." This has gotten even more play in the United States as U.S. star DaMarcus Beasley has recounted tales of monkey noises and tossed banana skins that trail him every time his foot touches the ball.

This has been aggravated by the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe that has of course become de rigueur in the U.S. as well. Shaun Harkin, who played for Coleraine FC in the Northern Irish League and captained Brown University's soccer squad to the National Collegiate Athletic Association quarterfinals, now works as an immigrant rights activist in Chicago.

He told us, "The racist abuse players have faced across Europe is an aspect of the growing backlash against immigrants. Immigration from former European colonies has grown. As in the U.S., immigration has been necessary for many European economies and a source of cheap labor--but immigrant communities have also been a convenient political scapegoat in a continent riddled with unemployment and increasingly anxious conditions for workers dealing with the repercussions of deepening neoliberal policies."

In other words, the German government wants to have it both ways: It's proper to foment anti-Muslim bigotry, tighten immigration restrictions and attack asylum seekers, but anti-Black racism shouldn't be allowed to sully "our" reputation or diminish the grandeur of this highly profitable spectacle.

Their political head was firmly ensconced in the sand until a man named Uwe-Karsten Heye upturned the apple cart. Heye, a former spokesman for the Social Democratic-Green coalition government, said, "There are small and mid-sized towns in Brandenburg and elsewhere where I would advise anyone [in the country for the World Cup] with a different skin color not to go. They might not make it out alive."

Heye, a cofounder of an antiracist group Show Your Face, was slammed for his comments. In Brandenburg, State Premier Matthias Platzeck, a fellow Social Democrat, called his words an "absurd slur of a whole region that is no way justifiable."

Wolfgang Bosback, a leading Christian Democrat parliamentarian, denounced Heye for singling out Brandenburg. But Bosback was at least equally alarmed by the prospect that such comments would damage the tourist industry, saying it would be "fatal" if Heye's comments kept people from Germany.

The government found, however, that people at home and abroad were more concerned with the message than the messenger. As a columnist in Berlin's daily Die Tageszeitung wrote, "the fact that non-Germans or non-white Germans can barely move around in safety is [the real] scandal," not Heye's comments.

Spurred to action, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble promised that his government would "not tolerate any form of extremism, xenophobia or anti-Semitism." Shäuble's solution, from the Dick Cheney school of diplomacy, is to station tanks outside soccer stadiums.

Schäuble, it should be noted has "balanced" his promises of combating racism by adding, "Blond and blue-eyed Germans can also become the victims of violence, sometimes attacked by those who don't have a German background."

The international soccer body FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) has made toothless pledges to combat racism at the Cup. Their plans include two "antiracism days," where banners will be draped at each game reading, "Say No to Racism"--although they will be taken down at beginning of the game.

This is what a FIFA spokesperson called a "clear message." Thank goodness some players have taken stronger stands. In last month's European club championship, French superstar Thierry Henry sported an armband promoting an antiracist campaign called Stand Up Speak Up.

Henry pushed his sponsor Nike to produce black and white intertwined armbands that demonstrate a commitment against racism. So far, they have sold more than 5 million.

"That's important in making the very real point that racism is a problem for everyone, a collective ailment," Henry told Time magazine. "It shows that people of all colors, even adversaries on the pitch, are banding together in this, because we're all suffering from it together." Muslim and Christian religious leaders organized a very successful Berlin game in early May.

The best hope for a Cup without racism won't be found in the Christian Democratic Union's tanks, but in the numerous antiracist groups that will be on the ground in Germany, including the network Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE).

FARE members speak for the majority of the world when they say on their Web site that they "want to see the 'beautiful game' played without the cancer of racism." But if the ugly head of hate is raised, the blame should extend beyond the thugs.

Dave Zirin is the author of What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books). John Cox is an assistant professor of History at Florida Gulf Coast University, and hopes to see Mexico shock the world in Germany.

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