Walking Off Versus Racism

I’m not even sure where to start. But we find ourselves amidst a tragedy in the sport that somehow seems to only be intensifying. Football has somehow managed to travel backwards in the high-flying age of VAR checks for offside by a millimeter (see the recent Tottenham v. Sheffield United tilt) and boots that weigh less than the air. What has happened where we seemingly cannot go even one week in the football world of 2019 without an outright assault on civil rights?? How have we come to a point where racism against players is so frequent it is bordering on casual??

It’s not just pathetic, it’s dangerous and vile and wholly embarrassing and now it is truly imperative that something must be done.

Because nobody thus far is doing anything about it.

Abject racism towards players (and this piece is only speaking about players, I could write a fucking Pulitzer Prize winning book on racism towards fans as I am a child of Northern England in the ’80s) is currently at a stage beyond rampant. To emphatically emphasize my point, I am only going to discuss here events from October 14th’s Bulgaria v. England match and on. Because there are too many occurrences of racism before that and enough occurrences of racism since to write about.

In all honesty, it isn’t the racism that I’m even in fact worried about. Racism exists and will never be extinguished. That’s life. And that isn’t me having a defeatist attitude towards the hatred, but merely being realistic and focusing my energies more on solutions or at least ways of combating the crimes that will have legitimate effects. And the most powerful statement players can make towards the racist behaviors of the hooligans and fanatics in the crowd is to walk off the pitch.

Fans come to watch football in a stadium. The racist chants and Nazi gestures happen whilst players are in that stadium playing being watched by the fans. If the players aren’t on the pitch then there’s nothing to watch. No one to jeer. It’s just a bunch of people in winter coats making eyes at white paint on grass. Makes sense, right?

Well, I fully understand that it’s not as easy as that. And I understand to some degree the argument about not walking off the pitch. But, we are at the juncture where it is simply the only option. I get it — walking off the pitch is giving the fascists exactly what they want. And one of the things that would be directly indicative of their desires is something happening in the match resulting from their behavior. To have an effect on proceedings. To affect a human’s psyche. To be the story.

But, the players have to take a stand. In countries like Ukraine, Serbia and Bulgaria the nature of the ultras (and I am not saying that all the fans in the stadia are participating) is so that teams are now expectant of match-long racism showering down from the terraces. As if it’s normal. And it does not have to be tolerated and it certainly should not be accepted.

The onus is now on the players though because FIFA and UEFA are evidently futile. Their ineptitude is deafening. Their inaction flirting with criminal. And their minuscule slap-on-the-wrist fines are immensely insulting (once they reluctantly admit to the circumstances having even taken place). Closing stands or the whole stadium for a couple of matches accomplishes absolutely nothing. It is definitely a start as there are financial repercussions involved with closures. And we know money is the solitary language of the higher-ups and the only aspect of this sport that they may actually address. But, it’s not enough (especially when misdeeds involving wearing the wrong brand or being disrespectful to white players are punished with distinctly more vigor).

A deduction of points, for one, should be instituted immediately. That will force the managers of the teams and/or countries to take swift action against the culprits. That will urge the teams themselves to commit to anti-racism movements and to actually make an effort to thwart the vitriol before it happens. Future bans will also spring decision makers and influencers into action. As will forfeiture of the matches opposing players walk off in.

Again, I understand the slippery slope here. As an England fan looking to get the squad into the Euros, I could potentially pretend to be Bulgarian and start racially abusing English players to get them to walk off and get the forfeited win, as well as have a rival lose more points on top of that. I understand the concept. But these aren’t imposters in the stands. These are season ticket holding menaces being embraced by club and country. And the carnage needs to stop.

Let me take you back to October where Tyrone Mings, an Aston Villa and England defender, was getting hounded by Bulgarian fans and the match temporarily paused. It would go on to be stopped again. Mings and other black English players were victimized. The Bulgaria manager denied the chants were racist and also denied that he had even heard anything at all (he has since been sacked as has the head of Bulgarian football who also denied the chants on top of stating, as Bulgarian journalists concurrently stated, England had exaggerated the events). The English players gathered around and decided that they would finish out the match together. Play as a team, and punish the fans and the racists, on the pitch. With their quality and their talent. England, on that front, did not disappoint. The players were prepared to walk off, but they are also aware of the abominable pressure that they face. That pressure stems from no one ever having walked off the pitch before. The weighty anxiety and hesitance to set a precedent.

Daring to be first is where true heroism lies.

Which brings us to Italy. The ongoing farce of Serie A does not cease to bewilder the mind of any sane organism which finds itself with even a modicum of life. Mario Balotelli, AN ITALIAN HUMAN BEING, for the countless time was peppered with racial abuse as he lined up for Brescia away to Hellas Verona on November 3rd. Look, I’ve watched Balotelli play in person when he was at Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in his early days, and I’ve watched his every move as he suited up for clubs I cannot stomach such as Manchester City and Liverpool. There is much to abuse Super Mario about (his aggressive tackling, his petulance towards authority, his outwardly brash take on rules in general), but his race is undoubtedly not one of those things. So, on the third day of this month, Balotelli had had enough. Verona, and the rest of the right of Italy if we are being acutely frank, do not classify Mario Balotelli as a whole Italian because he is black. He is one of them but not completely. Like, he speaks the language and loves a good pesto dish but he looks nothing like them, so is therefore not up to their standards. He taints their culture. And on that day, the camel’s back broke. Verona was beyond the edge. Balotelli picked up the ball and punted it into the seats the racist ultras (is that redundant?) were sitting in. And he then walked off the pitch. FUCKING FINALLY.

But, then he didn’t. He was coaxed back on by his white teammates and the opposition. I am without a doubt he was told the same, tired company line of “don’t let them get what they want”. How about what he wants? What all the abused players and fans want? Who is looking out for them? For us? Balotelli did not want to play in front of people bellowing racist remarks towards him. But, he was alone. He was alone on that pitch as a minority. Even if he wasn’t the only minority on the field, he was alone in wanting to take a stand against the racism. To fight. And he caved and acquiesced, as is totally understandable. Because he was supported by no one else. {{He consequently scored a beauty (GET IN!) of a goal in Brescia’s losing effort.}}

And that wasn’t even the depressing end of it. An absolute disgrace of a breathing being Andrea Bacciga, a councilor of the city of Verona, put forward a motion threatening legal action AGAINST Balotelli for besmirching the good name of Verona and its fans when he accused them of racist behavior. The donkey that is Bacciga claims Balotelli defamed Verona and should face justice. He also claims no one heard anything negative at the stadium. #OHOK #UBUM

And to top it all off, the ultras of Brescia, the team Balotelli plays FOR, defended the Verona ultras. As they tend to do. Not stopping there, the Brescia ultras subsequently criticized Balotelli for being arrogant. #REALLYGREATSTUFFITALY

So, what more evidence do we need to encourage the players to walk off? What else has to happen? Verona were laughably reprimanded with a partial stand closure for one match. Which will deter no single person. But, if there’s no players on the pitch and the match is all of a sudden over, then a message is clearly being sent. A zero-tolerance policy should not be so exotic or thought of as fanciful. We can and should have such values. If there is racism, and the players want to walk off the pitch, then the match has ended.

For that to happen there needs to be support. Support for the players to follow through with their wishes. The courage they have is already on show to continue playing in those environments, but now teammates, opponents and managers need to help make a statement by collectively walking off. Fighting together and then watch as the consequences cascade down. Walking off would be impossible to ignore. And it would encourage and give life to others who dream of doing likewise.

The time for this step is now. Racism may never die, but there needs to be a war. There needs to be committed action in order to create progress. Admitting it exists is a step in the right direction. And then genuinely deterrent punishments should follow.

This isn’t supposed to be easy. Nobody involved with masterminding change has ever testified to its uncomplicated nature. Football is about love and unity and now as one we need to hold up the players in order for us all to better the game we adore.

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