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In January of 2013, during an exhibition match with Pro Patria, Italian club A.C. Milan took a stand against racism not often seen in European soccer. A.C. Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, a Ghanaian-German, was racially abused by Pro Patria fans, who yelled ethnic slurs and made howling monkey sounds whenever he passed them.
In protest, the A.C. Milan team walked off the field, ending the match. Their decision sparked a new debate on racism in European soccer, with organizations such as FIFA and UEFA calling for harsher penalties for players who racially abuse opponents.
Soccer’s great strength has always been its international appeal. Kids around the world grow up kicking balls around. If they can’t find a ball, a tightly wound bundle of rags or an old tin can will do. Soccer is a truly global sport.
At the same time, professional soccer players and fans can be extremely bigoted. The problem is worst in Europe, where fans routinely bait players based on their race. Imagine an American game where fans demanded to see a player’s green card, or yelled at him to hire deportation attorneys.
Actually, those are pretty weak insults compared to what European players (particularly those of African descent) endure from rival club supporters. In some truly horrific incidents, players have been racially abused by their own fans.
If the problem were merely fans, it would be bad enough. Sadly, some players like to hop onto the racial abuse bandwagon, taunting and insulting other players in the hopes that it will affect their performance.
Spurred in part by the A.C. Milan incident, both the Federation Internationalede Football Association (FIFA) and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) are considering harsher penalties of players found guilty of racial abuse.
While FIFA has an existing 5-match suspension policy for racial abuse, at present this only applies to international competitions. Sources within the organization suggest the 5-game ban policy will be extended to any FIFA-sponsored game.
The UEFA plans to get really tough on racism, endorsing a 10-game suspension policy. The penalties would give both organizations some teeth, allowing them to punish players for racist activity, and by extension, punish racist fans.
Of course, in order to punish players for racial abuse, referees have to catch them in the act. Otherwise, the situation becomes the word of one player against another. In the flurry of a match, with howling fans and noise all around, catching players may not be as easy as FIFA and UEFA hope.
Regardless of what ultimately happens with these policies, it’s on us to raise a generation of soccer players who understand and embrace the international nature of the game. If we can do that, the game’s next Kevin-Prince Boateng won’t have to endure those types of insults.