Football, or as it’s known here, soccer, is known as “the beautiful game”. A sport that unites young and old! But the truth is that football does anything but unite, it separates men from women, white people from people of colour, homosexual people from heterosexual people. It isn’t just the far-right leaning section of fans either, this is deeply ingrained in the history of the sport with its governing bodies such as FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football) and UEFA (Union of European Football Associations). For example, when former FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, responded to a question on how to make the women’s game more popular by saying, “they could, for example, have tighter shorts”. I will be focusing on English and Italian football and what has happened recently regarding the 2020 European Championships with Hungary and UEFA, though the problems are present in every country.
To start, I’m going to discuss homophobia in English football. Justin Fashanu was a black footballer who played for Norwich City, there he became the first and only professional footballer to date to come out as gay. In 1981, he would move to Nottingham Forest for a fee of £1 million and with that, he became the first black player to sell for a million. He struggled at Forest; the result of an injury, not getting along with manager Brian Clough, and taunts about his skin colour and sexuality by fans and teammates. He would eventually commit suicide at the young age of 37 following allegations made against him. In his suicide note he cited his fear that his sexuality would eliminate the possibility of a fair trial. The sad end to an amazing footballer shows the disgusting acceptance of this behaviour, a behaviour going back to the 70s.
On the 14 August 2019, Liverpool and Chelsea faced off in the Super Cup. With the game poised at 2-2 after extra time, it went to penalties and young Chelsea player, Tammy Abraham, missed the vital penalty handing the trophy to Liverpool. Abraham would go on to receive an onslaught of racist abuse online from Chelsea “fans”. The miss left the boy in tears (that’s without the abuse). He described it as the “lowest point” in his career so far;
“In my head I was wondering if it was worth all the stress because I was getting abused on Twitter, a lot of racist comments, people saying I wasn’t good enough to be playing for Chelsea. It was the biggest down in anything I’ve done in football.”
One month later Wolves hosted Chelsea on the 14 September. Here Chelsea won 5-2, with Abraham scoring a stunning hat trick. Wolves season ticket holder Josef Smith was found guilty of racially aggravated and abusive behaviour after he, “curled his fists under his armpits in a chimp-like gesture” when Abraham scored the hat trick. These are just two examples of the countless times fans have racially abused Tammy Abraham, and this also shows the dangers it can have on young players. Currently, Abraham is only 23, at the time of these two incidents he was only 21 years of age.
After the COVID-19 break, football resumed on the 17 June 2020 with players wearing Black Lives Matter badges and instead of their names on the back of their shirts it read Black Lives Matter. Players, referees, and staff also took the knee at the start of games. Clubs across the football pyramid released statements showing support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) which didn’t get favourable responses by all fans (although many clubs such as West Bromwich Albion responded beautifully to these racist trolls and, I implore you to look up the clubs’ responses). All great touches by the Football Association and all players and staff involved, but it was all overshadowed by one of the most infamous scenes I have ever witnessed at a football match. On the 22 June 2020, Manchester city hosted Burnley at the Etihad stadium. This was expected to be just another game which Man City would win easily, a forgettable game, but it was all but forgettable. Before the game, a banner was flown by plane reading “White Lives Matter Burnley”. Burnley FC released a statement touching on the stunt; “We wish to make it clear that those responsible are not welcome at Turf Moor. This, in no way, represents what Burnley Football Club stands for and we will work fully with the authorities to identify those responsible and issue lifetime bans”. Burnley captain Ben Mee said after the game that he was; “embarrassed and ashamed” and that, “These people need to come into the 21st century and educate themselves… I’m really upset that happened.”
Now, I draw your attention to one of the most infamously racist and xenophobic fans in English football: Millwall. On the 5 December 2020, Millwall welcomed Derby County to their league game at The Den. Derby came out victors with 1-0, but the game was overshadowed by a portion of the Millwall supporters booing when the players took the knee. This was the first major incident of booing when the knee was taken but unfortunately, it would not be the last. It happened England played Romania in Middlesbrough on the 6 June 2021. Two days later, when Ireland travelled to Hungary to play the country, in a friendly Irish players were subject to Nazi salutes, booing, and monkey chants when players took the knee. In the Irish starting XI there were 2 players of colour (Gavin Bazunu and Adam Idah) and 2 players on the bench (Andrew Omobamidele and Chiedozie Ogbene). Hungary has an ultra-group called the “Carpathian Brigade”. They are a far-right hate group who devotedly follow the Hungarian national team (more on them later). Ultras are a set of fans of a certain club who are devout followers who go to home and away games no matter where they are being played. These groups often hold either far-right or far-left leanings.
Now, I would like to touch on Italian football. You could write volumes of books discussing racism in Italian football. Unfortunately I will have to shorten this part into a few major incidents. Starting with the Irriducibile. The Irriducibile are a group of ultras of the Roman team, SS Lazio. This specific group is well-known for their far-right, pro-Mussolini, leanings. A former Lazio player, Paolo Di Canio sported a tattoo of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Di Canio infamously gave multiple Roman salutes to Lazio fans, to the delight of the Irriducibile.
Mario Balotelli is a notable figure, from setting up title winning goals, to setting off fireworks in his own bathroom, but there is something we can’t knock the man for, his never ending spirit in the face of racism. All it takes is one simple google search and you find countless examples of harassment against him from across his career, particularly by Juventus and Lazio. I am going to touch on the abuse he faced against Hellas Verona when he played for Brescia Calcio in 2019. On 3 November 2019, after facing racist abuse all game in the 54th minute he decided to boot the ball into the racist crowd and walk off the pitch, but he was convinced to stay and then in the 85th minute he would go on to score the game winning goal in front of the racist fans. To end off this little piece on Balotelli I would like to draw your attention to a famous quote from the man, “You can’t delete racism. It’s like a cigarette. You can’t stop smoking if you don’t want to, and you can’t stop racism if people don’t want to.”
In April of 2019 Juventus youngster, Moise Kean, helped his team to a 2-0 win against Cagliari. All game the 19-year-old faced racist abuse and then scored the goal to put the tie to bed and then celebrated in front of the racist fans. Unfortunately the fan’s abuse isn’t the most shocking part of this story. His own teammate Leanardo Bonnucci violently pushed Kean away from the fans and afterwards claimed that the blame was “50-50” regarding the abuse, that “Moise shouldn’t have celebrated like that”. What about the other 85 minutes, Leanardo? In essence he stated that he thinks that it was Kean’s fault for being black.
On the 16 December 2019 the Italian Football Federation finally decided to take a stand against racism, a step in the right direction, until you realise that they decided to use apes as the cover mascot for this anti-racism campaign. I get what they were going for, trying to say EVERYONE is a monkey, that no one is any different from anyone else. Nonetheless the decision to lean into horrific stereotypes about black people, rather than actually challenging them suggests the campaign was either just lazy and naïve, or calculated and disgusting.
Now, with the European championships firmly over we can also now take a very clear and calculated look at what went down.
Firstly, you have Hungary and their fans. The aforementioned Hungarian ultras, The Carpathian Brigade, are a far-right hate group that religiously follow the Hungarian National Team. At the opening game of group F on 15 June, Portugal VS Hungary, hundreds of Neo-Nazis were among the 50,000 spectators. The Brigade created a “Black Wall”, they wore black shirts with the words “Carpathian Brigade” or “Magyarország” (Hungary), these fans were continuously doing such things as Roman salutes all game. All the while UEFA continues to work with Hungary and allow games to be played in Budapest whilst the country continuously implements anti-LGBT measures.
At the Hungary vs Germany game on 23 June, the city of Munich wanted to light up the stadium the game was taking place in with rainbow colours for pride. But UEFA blocked the move, this was their official statement:
“UEFA, through its statutes, is a politically and religiously neutral organisation. Given the political context of this specific request — a message aiming at a decision taken by the Hungarian national parliament — UEFA must decline this request… UEFA has nevertheless proposed to the city of Munich to illuminate the stadium with the rainbow colours on either June 28 — the Christopher Street Liberation Day — or between July 3 and 9 which is the Christopher Street Day week in Munich”. For context, Christopher Street Day is a German equivalent of Pride.
This statement was UEFA basically claiming that they were scared to upset one of their biggest sponsors for the tournament. This wasn’t about respect or human decency, this was about revenue. UEFA were afraid they were going to lose money. In retaliation during the game, one German supporter ran onto the pitch and waved a rainbow flag in front of the Hungarian national team during the Hungarian national anthem, coincidentally none of the broadcasting cameras caught this stunt live, but who is the one who runs and controls these cameras? UEFA.
Let’s move on to 11 July, the Cup Final. The tournament was nearly over. Two teams were one game away from European glory, Italy and England. With the game poised at 1-1 after extra time it went to a penalty shootout and Italy came out triumphant due to Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka’s penalty misses. The boys are 23, 21, and 19 respectively. All are also black. All received a torrent of horrible racist abuse from those who are supposed to be their fellow countrymen and countrywomen. That night, riots ensued across London where black people were targeted. The Marcus Rashford mural in Manchester was also defaced by swastikas.
Now, does this look like unity to you? Football does unite the world, but only when your team is winning or when large amounts of money is involved. Certain fans will cheer on their club and the players of colour when they’re scoring goals and winning matches, but as soon as you start losing then all that goes down the toilet. UEFA will “support” LGBT+ rights once it doesn’t affect their profits. This game is not just a sport anymore, it is not just a hobby. It is a business, a cruel business that feeds on differences.