The year was 2013.
The match was a friendly between AC Milan and Italian fourth division side Pro Patria.
Kevin Prince Boateng picked up the ball and volleyed it into the stands, aimed at fans who persisted in mocking his race and heritage with incessant monkey noises and chants every time he touched the ball.
He stormed off the pitch, eventually joined by his teammates, as the game was abandoned after 25 minutes of play.
It was a pivotal moment in world football, as he became the first player to cause an abandoned match due to racial abuse.
This was a turning point in football’s fight against racism, as the outpour of support that followed suit essentially forced the footballing governing body to take decisive action. This came at a time where former FIFA president Sepp Blatter was content with turning a blind eye to racism, suggesting all parties settle any “heated moments…with a handshake after the game”.
Prior to 2013, there had been notable incidents of racial abuse, and the most high profile one would undeniably be Luis Suarez’s eight match ban for calling Patrice Evra a “Negro” during a corner confrontation in 2011.
However, even that did not provoke football’s governing bodies to clamp down harder on racism in its aftermath. It was Boateng who paved the way with his outright defiance, challenging previous policy which stated that a player must stay on the pitch regardless of the chants, lest he will receive a booking.
Subsequently, following immense support from other professionals, clubs and even general anti-racism movements on an international scale for Boateng’s actions, FIFA introduced an anti-racism task force comprising experts, in which Boateng was a key figure.
The task force was crucial in the introduction of new anti-racism regulations, such as punishing teams with fines and playing of matches behind closed doors if they were found guilty, and even the possibility for losing points and relegation for repeated offences. FIFA also introduced the “three step procedure” based on their recommendations, which empowered match officials to halt, suspend and ultimately call off a match in the face of discriminatory atmosphere.
Today, the year is 2019, and sad to say, little has changed amidst the fight against racism.
The initial swift steps taken to combat racism in light of the incident in 2013 was seemingly undone by the disbanding of FIFA’s anti-racism task force in 2016. Most appallingly, the reason given for the disband was FIFA’s assertion that the task force had “completed its mission”, implying that racism is no longer existent in the footballing world. That is a gross misinterpretation and misrepresentation of facts on the ground, as racism persists, more so now than ever, some might even argue.
Various organisations and networks that seek to challenge discrimination and counter racism, such as “Fare Network”, “Licra” and “Kick it out” have all done comprehensive studies that report a worrying rise in racism over the years most notably in English and French football, amongst others. Racial abuse is so common in football that it has become hard to accurately quantify, as most cases remain unreported.
Footballing bodies continue to turn a blind eye to incidents of racial abuse, and we only need to look at club football in France to see the severity.
Just last year, Ligue 1 officials and the media downplayed claims of monkey chants and racial slurs directed at Nice striker Mario Balotelli, in a match with Dijon where the Italian was booked for gesturing at the abusive Dijon fans. Even though the booking was rescinded following an investigation, no punishment was imposed on Dijon following the investigation into the racial abuse.
Racism in football at the amateur level is even more shocking, as evident from the racial and physical abuse suffered by Guinean Kerfalla Sissoko, who was beaten unconscious by rival players and fans in a French amateur league game late last year.
The aftermath was even more mind boggling, as league officials suspended Sissoko himself for provoking the dogfight.
The persistent lack of anti-racism enforcement by football federations around the world has prompted the victims themselves to rise up and make their predicament known. Most recently, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), essentially the premier league players’ union, organised a 24-hour boycott of social media on 19th April in protest against a surge in widespread instances of racial abuse suffered by players both online and on the pitch, such as Raheem Sterling, Troy Deeney and Danny Rose.
In response, FIFA has thrown its backing behind the movement as it applauded the initiative by footballers based in England, and further proclaimed that it is “preparing a concrete action with worldwide impact that will launch a powerful campaign against discrimination.“
Racism is a crippling poison that has persistently plagued the beautiful game, eroding the very wholesome aspects of human nature that the game seeks so hard to accentuate. While discrimination in football may never be totally eradicated so long as the poison exists in larger society itself, the international football governing body leaves much to be expected in countering racial abuse in the game with their lax regulations and repeated disregard for racism’s prevalence in the game.
In the past decade, on the ground movements by fans and professional players alike to “detoxify” football has repeatedly force footballing associations to take heed and implement concrete action.
We can only hope that FIFA, under the tenure its new president, is finally committed to eradicating racism in the game once and for all.
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