European Soccer Seems to Be Returning to the Bad, Old Days

Raheem Sterling (Wikipedia)

It’s easy to think that Europe is more socially advanced than America. In many European countries, there is less taboo about interracial relationships than there are in the United States. (Britain has the highest number of biracial children in Europe.) But in some aspects of race relations, Europe is far behind the United States. And this is currently being played out in the world of professional soccer. Some recent disturbing incidents make it seem as if soccer is moving backward in terms of race relations. Here are some examples:

  • Last week, Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a banana peel thrown at him after he celebrated scoring a goal in his side’s victory over North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur. (This harkens back to the ugly days of the 1970s and ‘80s where black players were regularly subject to this kind of abuse.)
  • In 2015, a black Paris resident was ejected from a train carriage by Chelsea fans who said they “didn’t like him because he was black.”
  • In another disturbing incident, Manchester City star Raheem Sterling was racially abused by Chelsea fans after his team went down 2–0 in a game played on Saturday. Sterling has also complained that he has been stalked by newspapers who try to portray him in a negative light. He says this is a problem for black players. He also took the Daily Mail to task. They covered two young players, who had purchased their parents' homes, very differently. The black player, Tosin Adarabioyo’s, story was portrayed as a young star splashing out on a $5 million home. It also played up the fact that Adarabioyo hasn’t started a first-team game. The other story about Phil Foden, who also purchased a home for his mother, at roughly the same price, was written as a story of good son rewarding his mother. Foden, who is white, is also not a regular first-team player at Manchester City.

Sterling has a point. The way the media frames a story has a lot to do with the way it’s digested by the public. For example, the American media has an annoying habit of portraying white male shooters as suffering from mental illness. Stories about black male shooters, or innocent black men shot by the police, are less sympathetic.

Phillip Smith, president of the National African American Gun Association, pointed out the American constitution guarantees all citizens the right to possess arms. However, black men who are carrying guns, are automatically treated as criminals and shot on sight. This even happens in open-carry states, where they are not breaking the law.

In many ways, some of the problems in professionally soccer mirror the problems in American sports. Young black players have often complained about being racially profiled for driving luxury cars. Jermain Defoe, a former England international, was stopped so often for driving high-end sports cars, his coach Harry Redknapp complained about his treatment.

And as the satellite and cable TV companies poured money into the game, salaries have exploded to the point pro-soccer players are earning, as much, if not more, than American pro-athletes. And like in America, this has bred resentment. As someone who has worked in the American media, I can tell you there is tension between the mainly white media, who cover millionaire black athletes.

Britain’s aggressive tabloid press can be even worse. They love to write stories glamorizing the player’s lives, but also like to tear the same players down when they screw up. And I think some working-class Brits love to read those stories because they envy the players’ lifestyles.

It’s gotten so bad that many players enjoy ending their careers in America, where the press tends to leave them alone. In England, they have to worry about “reporters” camping outside their homes and bugging their phones. And it’s not just pro-athletes. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun even managed to successfully hack former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s phone. It should be noted that the stories Sterling referred to were both published in The Daily Mail, a right-wing tabloid that has faced accusations of racism, homophobia and sexism.

In a New Yorker article, former Mail reporter Brendan Montague said, “If you write something that’s blatantly prejudicial but not legally racist, you will be rewarded. None of the front-line reporters I worked with were racist, but there’s institutional racism. ”

But as Sterling pointed out some players are targeted, and other players are left alone. Spurs star Harry Kane, who lead the scoring charts at the 2018 World Cup, is the current golden boy of British soccer and seems to avoid negative press. But I’m sure he also used his earnings to take care of his family.

According to the BBC, Sterling has drawn support from ex-professionals.

“’Are we going to continue to allow this type of racist behavior go on?’” asked former Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand, while ‘Match of the Day’ pundit Ian Wright said ‘the bad old days are back,’” said a BBC article by Katie Falkingham and Mantej Mann.

However as America struggles with the Trump administration’s white nationalist policies, Europe is also seeing an ascendance of racially-motivated, neo-fascists.

According to a recent Medium article by Tobias Stone, Britain’s poorly-executed decision to leave the European Union was largely motivated by fears of changing demographics.

Unfortunately, some of those sentiments seem to be now expressed freely at soccer stadiums.

Manny Otiko writes about race, politics and sports. He has been published in Salon and LA Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @mannyotiko.

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