Must Be Seen to Be Believed: Kevin-Prince Boateng Kicks Soccer’s Racism in the Teeth

Imagine for a moment banana peels raining down on the head of Miami Heat basketball star LeBron James when he takes the court. Picture Vikings running back Adrian Peterson having to hear fans sing songs calling for his death because of the color of his skin. It’s difficult to visualize in US sports* but such scenes have become a normal feature of European soccer. Yet perhaps, in one moment of fury, the page may finally be turning on this ugly state of affairs. In a bracing display of courage, star midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, of the legendary Italian club, A.C. Milan, displayed all the frustration that’s been building among professional soccer players of color in Europe over the last two decades as they’ve endured and all manner of toxic, racist garbage when they take the pitch.

In the middle of a “friendly match” against the club Pro Patria, a mini-mob in the bleachers repeatedly tossed bigoted bombs at the non-white players on AC Milan’s roster, and Boateng decided he’d had enough. He picked up the ball right in the middle of play and punted it directly into their section of the stands. Boateng then began to walk off the field in protest. Here is where, in a matter of seconds, the turn of events shifted from shock to wonder. As Boateng stormed to the nearest exit, the Pro Patria fans, instead of jeering, cheered him for his actions. Then the referees called off the rest of the game and his opponents on Pro Patria walked off with Boateng, shoulder to shoulder, in solidarity. The announcers could only utter a word in Italian easy to translate: “Incredible.”

There were those who commented immediately on Twitter that the moves by Boateng, the referees, and the Pro Patria players were easy because this wasn’t an official league game. But Massimiliano Allegri, the coach of AC Milan, said afterward that his team would walk out again if one of their players were racially abused, regardless of either the competition or the situation. The powerful Allegri also put out a call for other teams to stage walkouts if their players were similarly abused. Particularly significant about this is that the European soccer-governing body, UEFA, has explicitly banned players and coaches taking the fight against racism into their own hands. As UEFA chief Michel Platini has said, players will be fined or suspended for expressing anti-racist resistance on the field. Instead. they should just meekly tell the referee and go about the game. Boateng, Allegri and others are now saying that this isn’t close to good enough.

As Pete Koury, host and executive Producer for SiriusXM FC said to me, “FIFA and UEFA have not done nearly enough to address the troubling issue of racism in world football. They’ve done a series public relations campaigns, T-shirts, and speeches, but their actions have been toothless. The only way to change things is through more dramatic action than we’ve seen so far. What Kevin-Prince Boateng and the players of both AC Milan & Pro Patria did today was one of the most drastic things we’ve seen to end racism in soccer and I applaud them for it. Considering this game took place in Italy—a nation of historically cruel and abusive fans—it makes me finally feel like there is finally progress being made.”

Koury’s point about Italy is particularly important. As sickening as the normalization of racist chants has become in European football, it’s especially toxic in the Italian league. The lightening rod for all the bigoted bile in the swamps of Italian fandom has been African-Italian star Mario Balotelli. Born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents, the electric Balotelli has had to endure racist chants, songs calling for his death and, from the time he was a teenage sensation for Inter Milan, people throwing bananas at him in bars. In 2012, he said, “I will not accept racism at all. It’s unacceptable. If someone throws a banana at me in the street, I will go to jail, because I will kill them.”

It was a powerful statement that resonated strongly with the younger, more diverse, “Balotelli generation” in Italy. But Boateng’s actions could actually be a far more profound game-changer felt across the world. They show that there are masses of Italian fans also sickened by the racist garbage that floats down from the stands. They show that white teammates as well as opponents will proudly stand with players of color. Lastly, they show in no uncertain terms that the days of enduring racist abuse, as if players in the twenty-first century are obligated to replicate the Job-like persona of Jackie Robinson in 1947, are done. No longer should players be expected to accept abuse as a normal part of play. No tolerance for racism can’t only mean statements from team officials after the fact. They demand direct action.

___
*I am in no way inferring that sports in the United States is either absent of bigotry or a Shangri-La for African-American athletes. But the consistent organizing of racist taunts in world soccer truly does set it apart.

12 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Great to see that finally happen!

And for those who don't know, Kevin-Prince Boateng is truly one of the toughest players in the world. He doesn't tolerate any nonsense at all! What he did is totally in character, but with that being said, I'm so glad that he did what he did. That, folks, is the true definition of guts! Good on ya KPB!

Stand Against Rascism

Indeed, good on ya KPB and the other players who stood with you! I wouldn't, however, kill any idiot who throws a banana at you. You should make him/her/it EAT it, skin and all! Either that, or shove it up his/her/its...nose!

Eurotrash football crowd

Good call on the article, but no need to qualify your hypothesis of a similar gesture at a US sporting event. Euro football supporters have gotten away with this kind of jackassery for decades, as more players from south of the Mediterranean have entered the major clubs. Worse, the sporting press seldom calls out that bullshit.

Therein lies the difference. It's not that racism is extinct in the States, or anyplace else, and might never be. But for all our social ills, there is at least a baseline of ethnic civility, and a stigma against flagrantly racist displays, and there are direct consequences for missteps (e.g. an ESPN copywriter was fired for an unfortunate choice of words regarding Jeremy Lin). If you tossed bananas onto the field, or held up a poster of a player gnoshing on a watermelon in Minnesota--or Mississippi for that matter--it would be all over the news for a week. In Euro soccer matches, it's generally waved off and quickly forgotten.

Imagine all the people living life in peace

Imagine RG3 leads DC's professional football team to the Superbowl this year or next.--

'RG3 you're going to Disney World.'
'That maybe, thanks, but I won't be playing for this team ever again, unless it changes it's racist name before next year. And not only that, I won't every being in a stadium that's a colony of the rest of the US, and a monument to white supremacy. If DC isn't finally made a state during the off-season, I won't be with team next year.'

Imagine all the people living life in peace

Imagine RG3 leads DC's professional football team to the Superbowl this year or next.--

'RG3 you're going to Disney World.'
'That maybe, thanks, but I won't be playing for this team ever again, unless it changes it's racist name before next year. And not only that, I won't every being in a stadium that's a colony of the rest of the US, and a monument to white supremacy. If DC isn't finally made a state during the off-season, I won't be with team next year.'

Good points!

Thanks Dave, always on point!

Good point on DC and the Redskins, Matt, what a horrible image and long racist legacy of that team and organization. As bad as the Cleveland Indians!

Good points!

Thanks Dave, always on point!

Good point on DC and the Redskins, Matt, what a horrible image and long racist legacy of that team and organization. As bad as the Cleveland Indians!

Stand Against Racism and you stand...

Stand With The Environment.

IDLE NO MORE
is for both. Winona LaDuke:
http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/opinion/idle-no-more-indeed-146709

not buying it

It's okay for fans to hate eachother and players over the color of their team's colors, but the slightest wiff of expressing ethnic differences is treated as "hate" or "racism". That's BS.

Prince Boateng is super rich and lives like a king, yet he is treated as a "victim". This is about more governmental control and laws restricting free speech in the name of "racism".

Suarez was suspended 8 games for simply calling Evra a "negro". What is racist about that? If he had called him a "blanco", that would have been ok? Boo to Dave for promoting this authoritarian narrative trying to limit people's free speech.

nba is klantastic!

Black players are still harrassed at nba games.they do much to contain the righteous indignation of black players worldwide.an occassional ass whooping similar to th one metta world peace(ron artest) dished out would go a long way to check racists! The other is django unchained!

nba is klantastic!

Black players are still harrassed at nba games.they do much to contain the righteous indignation of black players worldwide.an occassional ass whooping similar to th one metta world peace(ron artest) dished out would go a long way to check racists! The other is django unchained!

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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