Opinion: The beautiful game? Not anymore

An account of racism in soccer
Raheem Sterling has been the victim of racist taunts on multiple occasions. 
Raheem Sterling has been the victim of racist taunts on multiple occasions. BRAD TUTTEROW/CC FLICKR

It was a chilly evening in London on December 8 — the setting for one of the biggest clashes of the English Premier League, between Chelsea and Manchester City. But when Manchester City’s star winger Raheem Sterling went to the byline for a throw-in, he was meted out abuse by a fan. An unapologetic, gory insult to his skin colour. That’s when Sterling decided it was enough. 

“The way they were looking at me, I had to see where all this anger was coming from,” he said. “I was listening in to hear what they were saying.” He said he dismissed it immediately: “Nah, that can’t be what I heard.”

This is not an isolated incident either. Danny Rose, an English defender for Tottenham Hotspur, expressed looking forward to retirement, as the politics of racism are frustrating. “There is so much politics and whatever in football and I just can’t wait to see the back of it, to be honest.” Players are being called ‘monkeys,’ and obscene chants and gestures are directed at them for no other reason than the colour of their skin.

What’s worse is that media outlets and sports broadcasters shine a negative light on young Black players. Sterling, 24, is a successful player who earns as much as, or even more than, most of his white contemporaries. However, news reports circulate showcasing him as a flashy, brash youth with no regard for his hard-earned wealth. The truth is, he owns a single car, and his partner owns one more, like millions of white, suburban families in the UK and around the world. “When people are making the public believe you are a character you aren’t, that is hurtful, and it is degrading,” the young star said. 

Solidarity among players, including the white ones, is a step in the right direction, though this doesn’t happen often, with Moise Kean’s treatment serving as the prime example. An 18-year-old player with Juventus, he was faced with racist chants in a match against Cagliari. He took a leaf out of Sterling’s book and raised his outstretched arms to the opposition fans. This didn’t go well with his teammates, especially Leonardo Bonucci, a stalwart of Juventus and the Italian national team, who said the blame lay “50-50” with fans and players, especially if the fans are taunted. 

He was widely condemned for these comments, and later backtracked on them, but the damage was already done. A young player was left alone and shamed by his mentor on the team. The Italian Football Federation has confirmed that Cagliari and their fans will face no disciplinary action.

After England’s game against Montenegro, when many players of African origin were abused, Tottenham Hotspur’s Danny Rose said, “It’s sad, but when countries only get fined what I probably spend on a night out in London, then what do you expect?” This problem runs far deeper than stringent, superficial measures. Unless it is acknowledged, studied, and systematically purged by FIFA, UEFA, and other bodies, it will fester underneath, robbing the essence of the game.


Editor’s Note (August 27, 3:49 pm): An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that the December 8 match was between Chelsea and Manchester United. In fact, it was between Chelsea and Manchester City.

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