What the Milan game says about soccer racism

After fans began chanting racial epithets at a soccer game outside Milan on Thursday, AC Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boatenga, a black player, responded by kicking a ball into the stands, pulling off his shirt and walking off the field in Busto Arsizio, followed by his teammates.

The match was called off, and the club's director, Umberto Gandini, applauded the team's actions on Twitter, writing, "Very proud of the Milan players who decided to walk off the pitch today for racist abuse from a few idiots! No racism, no stupidity!"

AC Milan Ghana midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, right, is flanked by his teammate Mathieu Flamini as he gestures towards the crowd in Busto Arsizio, near Milan, Italy, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Emilio Andreoli)
AC Milan Ghana midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, right, is flanked by his teammate Mathieu Flamini as he gestures towards the crowd in Busto Arsizio, near Milan, Italy, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Emilio Andreoli)

It's unclear exactly what the chants were that prompted the team's exit, but fans in the same part of the stadium had directed monkey chants at another Ghanaian player, Sulley Muntari, earlier in the game.

While racist soccer fans are not a new phenomenon, this game might signal a coming change in policy. Now FIFPro, a 49-member worldwide soccer player organization, said referees should have "extra powers" to call off matches during which fans racially abuse players, a spokesman said Friday. And the AP reports that a public prosecutor is also likely to pursue charges against the fans of inciting racial hatred.

Currently, players who leave the field without permission in competitive matches over racist remarks from fans risk being punished by referees or football authorities. Referees can, however, call off matches when there are extreme crowd disturbances,  such as pitch invasions or violence in the stands, according to RIA Novosti.

In June, the president of the European soccer administrative body UEFA, Michel Platini, said that any players who walked off the pitch at Euro 2012 because of racial abuse would be booked. (However, the UEFA did later fine the German football association $31,000 because its fans made Hitler salutes and shouted Nazi chants during a match against Denmark in Ukraine in June 17.)

But FIFPro seems to be encouraging stronger action against racism on the part of referees.

“The players of Milan sent a clear message: If racism does not stop, then football will,” FIFPro spokesman Tony Higgins said in a Web site statement.“ This would require referees to be educated and more informed about racism and how to deal with it on the field of play, but it is one step FIFPro feels must be taken if we are to confront this issue seriously.”

Though racism is a problem in many professional sports, soccer seems especially prone to it. During the summer's Euro tournament, for example, fans threw bananas and yelled monkey noises during a game between Italy and Croatia. Three months ago, an English black player heard loud monkey chants at a youth tournament in Serbia, the New York Times reported. Last month, Russian soccer fans created a petition calling for non-white and gay players to be excluded from a major team.

“I don’t see this as only Eastern European, except by shade or degree. It’s ubiquitous in Europe," Andrei Markovits, a professor of German studies at the University of Michigan, told the Times. "Somehow the soccer stadium has remained the last bastion of unmitigated maleness. You can behave badly and be proud of it, the way you can’t in virtually any other venue in Europe.”

Some players and officials oppose walk-offs and canceled games because they feel it only encourages bad fan behavior. Shortly after the Milan incident, former Milan star Clarence Seedorf told BBC Radio 5 live: "I don't feel it's such a fabulous thing. These people will feel empowered now. They should just be identified and kicked out of the stadium."

But given the response to the Milan case, this may be a turning point at which pure soccer hooliganism has turned into a hate crime.

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Max Fisher · January 4, 2013

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