Apr 2, 2021 | SPORTS | By Joshua Kalenga | Graph by Joshua Kalenga & Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
Warning: This article contains racist and offensive language.
“Everton are white,” the crowd chanted as one fan threw a banana at John Barnes, a Black player.
Despite scoring 108 goals in 407 games for Liverpool, one of the most recognizable images of Barnes is that of him staring at the ground and kicking a banana off the pitch during the local derby against Everton in 1987.
34 years later, in 2021, reports of racism in soccer are on the rise.
In March 2021, Rangers player Glenn Kamara, who is Black, accused white Slavia Prague player, Ondrej Kudela, of using a racial slur against him during a Europa League round of 16 second leg tie.
Video footage shows Kudela putting his hand around Kamara’s ear and whispering into it. According to The Athletic, the alleged slur was “f***ing monkey”.
While the Rangers players and manager united in support of Kamara, Slavia president Jaroslav Tvrdik wrote in a statement that “[the club] categorically denies the fact that Ondrej Kudela racially insulted the player’s opponents in any way.”
In a post on Instagram, a Slavia Prague ultras page later displayed a banner containing a racial slur targeting Kamara. It read: “Kamara — just a n*****.”
Although the club officially distanced themselves from the group of ‘radical fans’ in the picture, the crude banner held proudly amidst roaring red flares further reminded the soccer world of the not-so-beautiful elements of the beautiful game.
Professional soccer in England saw a 42% increase in reports of discrimination during the 2019/2020 season, according to Kick It Out — an organization dedicated to anti-discrimination in the sport.
The graph below shows that the vast majority of the reports were related to racial abuse.
An increase in reported cases may not necessarily mean an increase in discrimination. It may instead represent increasing ability and willingness to speak out about the issue.
However, soccer authorities have historically been criticized for their responses, or lack thereof, to reports of racism in the sport.
In 2004, the Spanish Football Association were fined £45,000 by UEFA after crowds in Madrid directed monkey chants towards two Black England internationals — Shaun Wright-Phillips and Ashley Cole. In the same year, the Cameroon national team was fined almost twice as much by FIFA for playing in an unauthorized kit during the African Cup of Nations.
In 2012, the Serbian FA were fined £65,000 by UEFA for the racist abuse and violence suffered by Black players on the England Under-21 national team against Serbia. During the match, one of England’s Black players, Danny Rose, kicked the ball into the crowd in protest. He was given a red card and the Serbian FA publicly branded him “inappropriate, unsportsmanlike and vulgar”.
When Senegalese defender Kalidou Koulibaly was subjected to monkey chants during Napoli’s 1-0 defeat to Inter Milan in 2018, Italy’s former deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini (an avid supporter of A.C. Milan) weighed in on the event by saying, “Healthy teasing among fans is not to be considered racism.”
Feeling that more can and should be done, some Black players have launched protests and campaigns of their own, often supported by their non-Black teammates.
Players from Paris Saint-Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir walked off the pitch during a UEFA Champions League match in December after alleging that a match official used offensive language targeting Istanbul’s assistant manager, Pierre Webo.
More recently, French soccer legend, Thierry Henry quit social media, citing the rise in online abuse targeting Black players. Wales star Gareth Bale showed support by stating that he would join a collective social media boycott if “everyone did it at once.”
Black players with large followings such as England and Manchester City winger, Raheem Sterling, have used their platforms to back protests against racism.
Sterling and other Black players will be hoping that their protests, as well as recent high-profile incidents, mount pressure on organizations like FIFA and UEFA to implement stricter punishments against offenders.
However, it remains to be seen whether and how quickly these punishments will change the attitude and behavior of soccer fans.
“I don’t want the next generation of Black players to have to put up with this evil,” said Sterling in an interview with The Times.