Soccer, a sport mainly played with no hands, elicits strong emotions among its players and the fans that follow it. Sometimes these emotions are gutter-like, such as several “high-profile” racist incidents that have occurred in recent years.
“I think it’s a global political problem, not just in soccer,” says Olympiacos F.C. Strategic Advisor Christian Karembeu when asked about it. His club played Manchester City last Saturday at the U of M’s
on-campus football stadium as part of the 2014 International Champions Cup series. “When we talk about racism, we need to be together to find solutions,” Karembeu told the MSR after his club’s 5-4 shootout win.
Manchester City Defender Jason Denayer says he’s not worried about racial taunting directed at him. “It’s no problem,” he claims. “We have not had any problem,” adds his coach, Manuel Pellegrini, brushing off the MSR question during a pre-game press conference.
Notwithstanding, such ugly incidents have given international soccer a racist black eye. Two players of color were racially abused by opposing players in 2011, and Patrick Vieira just last month took his Manchester City youth team off the field because of an alleged racist incident on the field just before halftime of a preseason match in Croatia.
London Daily Mail Sportswriter Chris Wheeler explained, “The main problem we have now is not in our own country [England] but in Eastern Europe. If you have 10 [racial incidents], nine of them happens there. The tolerance there is far worse than it is [in England].”
Wheeler, who has covered soccer for 25 years, singled out Croatia and Serbia as current “hot spots” for racist incidents, suggesting a low tolerance for ethnic diversity as the cause. “The problem is the penalties given out to these countries are so minuscule, so it’s not a real punishment,” he points out.
“It’s much improved in England” since a new “Kick it Out” program has been instituted at matches, says Wheeler: “That helps drive out racism.” He remembers when it reached “the low point” during the 1980s — “a lot of violence, a lot of racism.
“The whole profile of the football fan [in England] has changed. It’s [a] lot more family-oriented and a lot less tolerant of that kind of behavior, but cussing and swearing still goes on at the games,” says the British sportswriter.
Soccer, football — same game, different name
Everywhere but in America, the sport we call “soccer” is called “football.” Wheeler explains “[The football name in the U.S.] is already taken” by American football. “It would make things easier if you’d say ‘gridiron’ [instead of football].”
A colorful crowd
Teynae Richards, her husband, and their 15-year-old soccer-playing daughter were among the 34,000-plus persons who last Saturday watched the first-ever soccer twin bill played at the Gophers stadium, where real live grass was brought in for the occasion. Minnesota United and Ottawa Fury played in the nightcap.
“The crowd was so diverse. You saw a little of everything,” Richards told the MSR afterwards. Other ethnic groups were “well represented,” but as far U.S. Blacks were concerned, she noted their presence was “slim to none. Our [local Black] kids don’t play soccer here.”
Lasting first impression
Greg Leigh, one of several players of color on Manchester City, says that he was impressed with last Saturday’s crowd.
“We had great seats,” said Teynae Richards. “I felt I was at a real soccer match rather than a [converted] American football field.”
A photo gallery on the first-ever soccer match played at the Gopher football stadium is on the MSR website.