By Aristo Dotse
Accra, 21 October 2020 – The big issues of racism and discrimination in sport mostly against blacks and other minority people over the years, especially in recent times, is such a nagging and an annoying matter that the International Sports Press Association [AIPS] – the world body for international sports journalists – very recently held a virtual conference to discuss it. But no matter the outcome of the all-important AIPS conference in September, it is very clear that racism and discrimination in sport are such bothering issues that have to come to an end. But the big question is whether they will or can ever stop or reduce?
Racism and discrimination in sport and society in general have appropriately become topical issues again, more so, in recent days due to the non-sport incident that led to the unfortunate death of a black man, George Floyd, in May in the United States, in the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, where a white police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine, yes nine, solid minutes and led to an avoidably painful death. This rocked the world and led to all kinds of protests, in the form of ‘black lives matter’, not only around the United States, but also in so many places in the world and so many spheres of life, including sports.
Unfortunately, these two cankers of racism and discrimination have long been pain-in-the-neck issues in sport, particularly in football, which has seen so many high-profile racial and discriminatory issues on and off the field. Unfortunately again, the relevant authorities have not been too firm in dealing with the matter, but now, in the aftermath of Floyd, football in particular has woken up and been more serious with issues of racism and discrimination in the game. But most importantly, there is so much more to be done for racism and discrimination to be rooted out of sport and society in general.
Cause of racism and discrimination
But once again, whether racism and discrimination will ever come to an end or get reduced is another matter altogether. This is simply because some people, also created by the one Almighty God, think and feel they are better than and superior to another set of people the same God created. They believe and feel they are more human than the others. But one big question remains: who says the white skin is better than the black or coloured skin and vice versa? This is a multi-million dollar question we all, as humans, need to ponder about and stop all the stupid things and behaviour we do or show and say to our fellow human beings.
Quite correctly, the bitter truth is that white people seemingly do racism or discrimination or both against black and coloured people more than the other way round, and this is mainly because the white person, it seems, thinks and feels he is better or more human than the black person. In some instances, the feeling or thinking is that the black person is not human, but an animal. That’s is why you would hear or see a black person being labelled by a white person as a black monkey, and bananas are hurled at him or her as a result. This is how bad and serious it can get. But this is not to say people of black and coloured races, some of whom can be very racist, don’t do racism or discrimination against whites, but it is not that much like the opposite way.
When it comes to sport, the activity or entertainment that brings all of mankind pure joy and happiness, black people have made huge impacts and played monumental roles to bring not only joy and happiness to all, but made them great successes. Maybe, their successes should have woken up the racists, many of whom are whites, and made them to think again and better accept and appreciate the black people for who they are with regard to their skin colour.
Very interestingly and remarkably, if you take the world’s four most popular sports – football or soccer, boxing, tennis, and athletics or track and field – the all-time champions or greatest in these sports, except tennis, are black persons.
Brazil’s Pele, 80 years on Friday, October 23, is still regarded by many as the greatest footballer in history. When he appeared on the world stage as a tender 17-yr-old boy in 1958, at the FIFA World Cup in Sweden where he led Brazil to the first of the three World Cup triumphs that he was part of, to still be the only player in history to win most (three) World Cups, it dawned on everyone at the time that the world had never seen such a player before, although so many players had come before him. Other blacks like him, such as Manuel Francisco dos Santos, known to the world as Garrincha, Eusebio (an African from Mozambique who did great things for Portugal where he was regarded the country’s greatest ever until recent feats by Cristiano Ronaldo), Ruud Gullit, Romario, George Weah, Cafu (the only player to play in the World Cup final three times, Ronaldo (the Brazilian who is football’s greatest ever striker), Clarence Seedorf (the only player to win the UEFA Champions League with three different clubs), Ronaldinho, etc. are some blacks who have made their marks in the history of world football.
Like Pele, Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali, came to dominate boxing like never before and ended his career, and died in 2016, still believed to be the greatest of all. That’s why he’s called the “Greatest”, if even he gave the title to himself in his autobiography, a movie about his career and a music album.
In athletics, or track and field, as the Americans know it, there has never been a better all-round athlete like the American Frederick Carlton Lewis, better known as Carl Lewis; there has never been a better sprinter than the great Usain Bolt of Jamaica; and there has never been a better distance runner than the great African from Ethiopia, Haile Gebrssalassie.
And even in the United States where white-black racism against each other is most rife and brutal, blacks have dominated, performance-wise, four of their six most popular sports – American football, basketball, boxing, and track and field – with Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Ali, Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather, Lewis, Jesse Owens, Florence Griffith Joyner, Serena Williams, etc. regarded as some of the all-time greatest. It is only in baseball, the American version of cricket, and tennis that black presence is scanty.
Football has its fair share
Yet still, despite all the great feats they have chalked over the years in the world of sport, blacks have been denied the dignity and respect they deserve as human beings. It is one reason why racism and discrimination against mostly black people still persist in sport and in life generally. And if you narrow it down, football – the world’s number one sport – has seen its fair share of racism and discrimination since time in memorial.
Black players like England’s John Barnes, in the late 1980s, and very recently Brazil’s Dani Alves, Ghana’s Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari, Italy’s Mario Balotelli, and Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, just to mention a few, are some of the high-profile cases in the damning areas of racism and discrimination in European football.
And sad to say, and very tellingly, almost all of these cases happened in Italy, in the Italian top-flight Serie A – which recently did an unacceptable thing in response to Lukaku’s racial abuse in December 2019 by doing a so-called anti-racism campaign of ‘Say No To Racism’ posters with images of black monkeys. Fortunately, that bizarre response by the Serie A was correctly condemned widely and they realised their gaffe and quickly withdrew it. But truly, it didn’t really matter because some more damage had already been done. So, why have Italy (especially), Spain, Russia and to a lesser rate England become such notorious hotspots for racism in football? It’s a matter that needs to be looked at and tackled.
Meanwhile, it’s amazing that a human being would look at another human and throw a banana at him, apparently because he feels the one the banana is being hurled at is a monkey, like in the cases of Barnes – the second black player to ever play for Liverpool – in a Merseyside derby league game against bitter city rivals Everton in 1988, and Barcelona’s Alves in La Liga. Being a victim of something like this definitely kills one’s soul and spirit, and so it should not be done to, and by, anyone.
Most recently on Tuesday, after Barcelona had beaten Hungarian side Ferencvaros in the UEFA Champions League, with Barcelona’s 17-year-old black wonder boy Ansu Fati scoring a wonderful goal in the 5-1 win to become the first under-18 to score two goals in the Champions League, Spanish journalist Salvador Sostres amazingly described Fati, who is Spanish like Sostres, as a “black street vendor” who “you suddenly see running when the police arrive”. This prompted Fati’s white French team-mate, Antoine Griezmann, to give a very sensible advice to Sostres and people like him in response:”Ansu is an exceptional boy who deserves respect like any other human being. No to racism and no to rudeness”. Sostres, who later apologised for his comments, should have known better, but it’s not too surprising for him to liken Fati, who was born in Guinea Bissau, in Africa, to some black Africans in Spain, simply because he (Sostres) and people like him undermine blacks, it seems.
In 2017 the sad story was told of how some white Chelsea fans badly behaved or misbehaved towards a black PSG fan in Paris after a UEFA Champions League match between Chelsea and PSG and it became a big issue. Meanwhile, those Chelsea fans, who were later found out and were banned and fined, had forgotten about the success and happiness some black players like Didier Drogba – who was the chief inspirer in their only Champions League triumph and is regarded Chelsea’s greatest player of all time – have brought their club in recent years.
In the 2009 UEFA Champions League final in Rome, where a master-class performance from Guardiola’s Barcelona dazed Manchester United in a 2-0 win, Samuel Eto’o, Barca’s black striker from Cameroon, scored a brilliant opening goal in the 10th minute. In his celebration, he continuously tapped his left arm, seemingly in reference to his skin colour. Later, he came out to explain that his action meant he was the blood of his father. Whilst he sought to remind all that he is black and proud, he failed to realise that his act was racist. Scoring a goal or celebrating it has nothing to with a skin colour. What of if every white or coloured person also decide to celebrate in that manner, like Eto’o did in Rome? Meanwhile, Eto’o apparently did it in response to racial abuse he himself had suffered in Spain.
Most recently, about three weeks ago, Junior Flemmings, a black player from Jamaica in the USA’s second tier USL Championship, allegedly abused a gay opponent player of San Diego Loyal, a white American called Collin Martin, prompting the San Diego side to walk off the game they were leading 3-1. Following investigations, the abusing player was given a six-match ban and a fine. The act by Flemmings didn’t only deserve the punishment received but also deserves strong condemnation.
What’s the solution forward? – Just ignore the abusers
So what is the way forward in finding a lasting solution to these nagging problems of racism and discrimination in sport? Unlike in the past, many, including footballers and sportsmen themselves, have woken up now and speaking much against racism and discrimination. One like England’s Raheem, who like Barnes, is of Jamaican origin but grew up in Britain, has been very vocal and loud about it recently. On top, authorities have become firm and firmer with issues about discrimination and racism, to the extent that new racial fighting groups – MLS Black Players For Change and Football’s Black Coalition – have come into quick existence in the United States and England respectively. But will these help stop or reduce the problems?
All of mankind can help fight these brutal cankers and relevant authorities can further step up with lots of hefty punishing measures for racial abusers and culprits of discrimination. But the truth is that some foolish ones would always find a way of deliberately causing trouble. For instance in England recently in June, some fans of Premier League side Burnley decided, planned and hired a plane to fly offensive banners displaying “White Lives Matter Burnley” over the Etihad stadium, as Manchester City hosted Burnley in a Premier League game, in defiant response to ‘black lives matter’ protests ongoing at the time in the wake of the Floyd death. According to the culprits, if black lives matter, white lives also matter, and so that’s why they did it, forgetting that the ‘black lives matter’ protests were for a particular reason and purpose. Incredible.
So the simple advice to victims of racism and discrimination is: just ignore the abusers, like Alves did to his offender in Spain when he was about to take a corner-kick for Barca against Villarreal in a 2014 league match. When the banana was thrown at him, he quickly picked it up from the ground (pitch) and ate it to tell the abuser that he was indeed a ‘monkey’. Truly, Alves’ was the winner and his action would hunt the abuser and he would be thinking and telling himself it was not necessary after all, and might convince him not to think, let alone try anything, like that again.
In another incident in Spain, on October 14, 2017, I had my own racism experience and I think I won against the racists. It was when a group of about ten white Atletico Madrid fans immediately started to boo at me in a racist or disapproval manner just upon setting eyes on me, a black person, at the outer surrounding of their Wanda Metropolitano stadium on the occasion of a La Liga match against Barcelona. I was in Madrid at the time and I decided to sample the atmosphere before the game and there was a large crowd of fans and for that matter human traffic outside the stadium having lots of fun as kick-off time approached. As I found myself in the midst of these Atletico fans, they started to do their own thing but they stopped immediately when I suddenly stopped and turned to face them and rebuked their action by nodding my head in disapproval, without uttering any words. They didn’t only stop at once but also I realised they felt ashamed of their misbehaviour (the expression was clear on their faces). Meanwhile, they had forgotten that in a few minutes later, a black person in the name of their own player, Thomas Partey, a Ghanaian like me, would be doing battle for them in a 1-1 draw against Lionel Messi and co.
Nine days later, I won again in an incident I considered to be discriminatory in London at the Best FIFA Football Awards on October 23, 2017, almost three years ago, at the London Palladium theatre. As one of the accredited media for the event, I got to the media centre early, in the afternoon, to prepare for the night, only to be told that I, with others, needed to write down our names for media passes into the auditorium to replace any no-show media men, as our accreditation didn’t include access to the event’s main auditorium. We duly wrote down our names and were told to come for any available passes two hours to the start of the event.
When it got to my turn in the course of distributing the available passes, the lady FIFA media officer paused and instead began to call out for members of the British media and give the limited passes to them, ignoring the list of names written down and queue in front of her. This was clearly against the FIFA theme of ‘Fair Play’ and stance against discrimination, and it was being done by a FIFA official. I became surprised about her sudden change of the protocol but I still kept cool. And crucially, I didn’t turn away in anger; I would have lost if I had done that.
But at a point, I had to intervene as it continued and politely questioned her why she had abandoned the list and queue and prioritising the British media men and she responded it was because they were at home. I was shocked about her answer and again questioned her: what about the visiting journalists from abroad who had spent good money and time and even risked lot of things to travel for the event? She immediately realised her mistake and quickly gave me one of the few remaining passes in seeming shame and I went away.
I still don’t know what happened afterwards behind me but the most important thing for me was that I quietly fought for my right and won to get into the main auditorium to follow and cover the event.
When the likes of Balotelli, Boateng and Muntari were racially abused, they became angry, rightly though, stopped playing and left the pitch. Leaving the field represented victory for their abuser or abusers, because they would say we got them. But if the players had ignored and minded their own business by continuing to play, as if they had not seen or heard any racial abuse, the abusers would surely be tired, fed up and stop abusing. Truly, it is difficult and tough to take but it also needs strong mentality to deal with it and move on.
To a large extent, we can also learn to co-exist and live together in harmony as we are all human beings. Maybe, we can all learn something from France, whose national football team, won their two FIFA World Cup titles, in 1998 and 2018, with teams containing balance combination of black and white players. Similarly, the black and white South Africa team that won the 2019 Rugby World Cup is worthy of emulation.