Last weekend, Porto striker Moussa Marega was racially abused during a match against Vitoria Guimaraes. He scored what turned out to be the winning goal and was harassed with monkey sounds whenever he went near the ball for the rest of the match, or at least for the duration of his time on the pitch. Eventually, he refused to keep playing and walked off.
If the racism wasn’t disgusting enough, what ensued made it worse. The referee yellow carded him, apparently for leaving the pitch without permission. His teammates tried to convince him to stay on the field, including physically trying to pull him back.
As Kick It Out, the anti-racism in football awareness group and charity stated, “the blatant disregard for protocol is unacceptable, and players should be united and walk off together in their condemnation of racism, instead of this.”
Even though this most recent incident took place in Portugal, racism is not a problem to which the Premier League and the FA are immune. There have been accusations of racist behavior from and/or arrests of fans of PL clubs this season, including at Manchester City and Tottenham. A lower division match was abandoned after a team walked off the pitch in solidarity with a teammate being abused.
VICE reached out to all the Premier League clubs the day after Marega was abused to inquire how each would handle a similar incident. The author put Arsenal’s response, along with Liverpool’s, in the “Top of the League” category.
After an initial statement about being “fully supportive of any of our players or staff if they were the victims of racist abuse”, I received a call from a club spokesman who wanted to explain in more detail the comprehensive steps they were taking across all their teams – men and women of all age groups – to make sure players knew that they would be fully empowered in that situation, and that the team would stand by them. The club is certain that what happened to Marega and Balotelli would not happen at Arsenal.
It’s important to ponder the question the author poses — what would you do if something like that happened at your club, at Arsenal? How would you respond if you were in the stadium and heard somebody near you racially abuse a player? What would you do if you thought the club’s response to racism from supporters wasn’t enough?
We came close to having to wrestle with those questions when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a banana peel thrown at him by away Tottenham supporters at the Emirates in 2018. So let’s not delude ourselves into thinking it’s somebody else’s problem, that “it doesn’t happen here,” or that it’s isolated incidents. It’s happened at our ground. It’s happening every weekend at grounds across the world.
I wish I didn’t have to write about racism, and I hope for the day where that is the case. But I’m sure anything I feel pales in comparison to what the targets of abuse and the groups being abused feel.
I don’t know what the fix is for racism in football or if a complete one even exists, but in Marega’s case, I think we could start by Vitoria Guimaraes playing every home game for the remainder of the season to an empty stadium. Bring down the hammer. Send a clear message to the club, it’s fans, and the footballing community that we do not tolerate racist behavior and that the retribution for racism will be swift and will be terrible.
It is also critically important that the footballing powers that be (and us, as fans too) seek out the people who know more than we do about racism as the terrible phenomenon it is and listen to the people who have experienced it themselves. They must always be a part of the conversation, and they must always feel supported.
It’s important that we use our little corner of the internet and the footballing world to call out racism. To not let the continued existence of racism in football fade from the collective consciousness when we don’t see some heinous, high-profile acts for a little while. Because that’s what happens. It fades. A fan, a stand, a player, someone does something racist. We talk about how racism is bad and how we need to combat it. We use the same, tired words over and over. And then we stop talking about it until the next incident. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It makes me so angry, in part at myself for being part of that cycle, in part because we haven’t figured out how to break that cycle, and in part because I’m not sure we’re doing enough to find the answers. I’m upset with myself for letting the continued existence of the scourge that is racism periodically fade from my consciousness. For allowing my privilege as a person who is not the target of racism to let me get complacent and forget that there are many people for whom complacency and forgetting isn’t an option.
But it isn’t about me. It’s about Moussa Marega, Mario Balotelli, Raheem Sterling, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and every footballer who can’t go to work without the possibility that some miscreant will racially abuse them. It’s about the insidious, pernicious, trickle-down effects that racism has on football and beyond.
Our sport is sick. We need to cure it. We need to eliminate racism in football.