Of course we should all applaud Barcelona’s flying fullback, Dani Alves, for his inspiring protest action during a Spanish league match Sunday. When a spectator threw a banana at the Brazilian footballer as a racist insult, he quickly picked it up, peeled it and ate it.
But when it comes to finally exorcising the specter of European racism, humor may not be enough. The incident and the global attention it has garnered demonstrate yet again that when it comes to racism in football, the onus is placed on black and brown players and their reactions to abuse — as if the responsibility for the problem lay with them and not with the racists.
Sunday’s incident is not about some isolated individuals or a handful of idiots and morons, as some media and authorities have described racist supporters. Instead, the focus should be on the deep-rooted racism that persists across European societies, on the institutions and authorities whose years of lip service have so dismally failed to protect black players and on all those in the game, as in society, who stand silent and thus complicit.
Spain is particularly notorious. Alves told journalists after the game that he has faced racist abuse in each of his 11 seasons playing in Spain. Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto’o once threatened to walk off the field during a match for Barcelona against Real Zaragoza, and Eto’o’s national teammate Carlos Kameni was abused by his own fans at Espanyol. In 2004 during a friendly match, Spanish fans greeted England’s black players with monkey chants. Former Spanish national team coach Luis Aragones motivated a player by using a racist slur against Thierry Henry.
Racism does not somehow go away when those subjected to it react with the good grace shown by Alves. His impulsive wit has no more validity than the reaction of Ghanaian forward Kevin-Prince Boateng, who led a walk-off of AC Milan’s whole team when he suffered abuse while playing in Italy, or of the world’s best midfielder, Yaya Touré, who last year suggested that players boycott the World Cup in Russia in 2018 unless the country deals seriously with its racism. A public discourse that focuses on imposing norms on the victims of racism as to how they should react is a discourse in which racism goes unchallenged.
The legendary French defender Lilian Thuram, the moral conscience of the sport for many years, has voiced his frustration with the way debates about racism in football play out. “As a general rule, we always go to the players who are victims of racism,” he told the BBC in November. “I think it’s the others who can change things.”
“When I speak about racism or Yaya Touré or Kevin-Prince Boateng speaks, everyone knows what to expect. But if tomorrow all the white players from Manchester City say that from now on if something happens, we will refuse to go back out onto the pitch, and if the players from AC Milan, from Inter Milan and from all the big clubs say the same thing, you’ll soon see that we’ll find a solution.”
Thuram’s challenge to the way racism is addressed in football, as in wider society, is profound: The failure of moral leadership against racism from those who are not direct victims of it constitutes complicity and ensures that racism persists. We may have missed some Instagram accounts, but it is striking to note that none of the images of players eating bananas in solidarity with Alves are white Europeans.
The sphere of responsibility also includes the media. Any report on racist abuse suffered by a footballer is invariably accompanied by an image of the player abused, but that simply isn’t an accurate representation of racism. Their abusers are the story and ought to be the focus.
In European football, as in most European societies, racism is understood as nothing more than a list of banned words or inflammatory gestures, such as the banana hurled at Alves. When black players in the game point to structural or institutional racism, as Sol Campbell and Touré have done in recent weeks, a host of white pundits and journalists soon line up to dismiss these claims as self-serving and wrongheaded examples of playing the race card. No attempt is made to acknowledge the validity of their lived experience or the fact that they have little to gain from speaking out, when they know in advance that their views will only be trivialized and rejected. The only possible evidence of racism, goes the logic, is an explicit racial slur.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter condemned the abuse of Alves on Sunday. Previously Blatter suggested that victims of racist abuse should shake the hand of their opponent and get on with the game. That this step, though welcome, represents progress shows how far the sport has to go. At an institutional level, the fact is that the appointment of a black manager in a major European league is still celebrated as a first. This month, the English Premier League lost its only black head coach with the firing of Chris Hughton by Norwich City. That leaves Clarence Seedorf as the only black manager at a high profile European football club.
The remaining question concerns the white players: When will we see them leading walk-offs like Boateng’s or challenging racists from the pitch as Alves did on Sunday? In the 1980s the skillful Chelsea player Pat Nevin (he also played at Everton) used to interrupt postmatch interviews to lambaste his own fans for their racism. Like today, the assumption back then was that questions about racism should be directed at the black players while a white Scot like Nevin should be asked about his team’s tactics and performance. Nevin wouldn’t stand for it. We need more Nevins today.