By James M. Dorsey
Recent soccer-related racism highlights European nations’ tortured transition from ethnically relatively homogeneous to multicultural immigration societies amid a resurgence of entrenched racial, including anti-Semitic, attitudes that flourish in times of economic crisis and are not limited to Muslim communities.
Fans across Europe have lined up on both sides of the racism divide in a debate that involves despite recent attacks on freedom of speech and Jewish symbols in Copenhagen and Paris, Jews, blacks and Europeans of immigrant extraction in general as much as it does Muslims. The debate is being waged against the backdrop of the rise of the extreme right in a Europe that struggles with high unemployment, low economic growth and thousands of refugees washing up against its shores who are seeking refuge from conflict in the Middle East and Africa.
The targeting by racist fans of Muslims and non-Muslims alike is evident in a survey of numerous racist expressions on and off the pitch. It has sparked opposition from soccer enthusiasts to whom racism is abhorrent.
Right-wing fans often have links to racist political organizations whose legitimacy is being enhanced by European leaders like British Prime Minister David Cameron who recently refused to rule out a future coalition with the UK Independence Party (UKIP) that has no issue with associating itself with Holocaust deniers and denounces not only Muslims but also economic immigrants from Eastern Europe.
Europe’s transition to multiculturalism was first dealt a body blow by Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, subsequent bombings of public transport in Madrid and London, the murder in Amsterdam of a Dutch filmmaker, the flow of Europeans fighters joining the ranks of the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, and finally the recent attacks in Copenhagen and Paris.
European leaders have been at pains to insist that the continent’s confrontation with political violence constitutes a conflict with radicalism rather than with Islam. Yet, racism on and off the pitch is rooted in entrenched racial attitudes that became publicly taboo post-World War Two but were never eradicated. They are reinforced by a failure to acknowledge that immigration starting with decolonization and a wave of Mediterranean guest workers in the 1960s has fundamentally changed the nature of European society and by discrimination in education, employment and off-the-pitch soccer.
The latest incident of soccer racism in Paris with supporters of Chelsea FC, which fields some of England’s most talented black players, chanting “we're racist, we're racist, and that's the way we like it" demonstrates the point. The fans repeatedly shoved a native Parisian off a metro train because of his skin colour rather than his faith. Italian police days later arrested 22 fans of Feyenoord Rotterdam for rioting in Rome and damaging the Baroque fountain on the Spanish Steps.
Right-wing, self-styled hooligans in Germany supported by the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) who in November set aside rivalries to riot in Cologne against the spread of what they termed radical Islam pride themselves on also targeting anarchists, Marxist-Leninists and other left-wing extremists. Some 50 police officers and 20 fans were injured in clashes.
By contrast, the English Defence League that trace its roots to a right-wing soccer sub-culture emerged as exclusively anti-Muslim as have similar groups in Norway and Denmark. “What we’re seeing…is that the groups of ultra sports fans are themselves infiltrated by neo-Nazis,” said Esteban Ibarra, president of Spanish advocacy group Movement Against Intolerance.
Increased expression of racism on the pitch is not going unchallenged. European clubs who thrive on fielding multicultural teams are opportunistically recognizing when convenient the continent’s new reality in which immigrants account for up to 20 percent of the population. Real Madrid CF has removed the traditional Christian cross from their official club crest in a gesture that was as much designed to signal multiculturalism as it was to cement a lucrative three-year sponsorship deal with the National Bank of Abu Dhabi.
Yet, the gesture follows repeated expressions of anti-Semitism in Spanish sports, including some 18,000 people last May endorsing a profane and anti-Semitic hashtag after Real Madrid was defeated by Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final of Europe’s main basketball tournament.
Newcastle United football fans are meanwhile rallying against German anti-Islam movement Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) that plans to hold its first British march on February 28, the day Newcastle United plays Aston Villa at St James' Park. Pegida said the march was to “show the Islamists we show no fear.” In Madrid, a fan was killed in December in a clash between left and right wing soccer club supporters.
Holland’s Vitesse Arnhem was criticized last year for playing a friendly in Abu Dhabi despite the fact that its Israeli defender Dan Mori was refused a visa. Similarly, when Brazilian striker Dani Alves was taunted last year with a banana by fans, politicians and supporters across Europe ate bananas to denounce the insult to the Barcelona player on the grounds of his skin colour.
The failure to acknowledge societal change is reflected in the fact that senior soccer management in Europe does not reflect the cultural and racial diversity of society and the sport itself. Soccer management remains dominated by white Christian males, some of whom have in recent years been embroiled in controversy over racist and discriminatory remarks.
Piara Powar, executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), warned in an interview with England’s Press Association that the wave of racism in soccer was part of a broader picture. “People don't respect ethnic minorities, except as players,” Mr. Powar said.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wurzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and a forthcoming book with the same title.