Is FIFA Facing a Player Revolt Against Racism?

Kevin-Prince Boateng's walk-off could change the game

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Antonio Calanni / AP

AC Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, of Ghana, sports a jersey reading "AC Milan against racism" prior to the start of the Serie A soccer match between AC Milan and Siena at the San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy, Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013.

(Updated: Sunday, Jan. 6, 11.45 a.m.)

FIFA, you have a problem.

The player walk-off led by AC Milan’s Ghana midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng last week to protest racist abuse during a friendly match against a lower-tier Italian club could mark the beginning of a player revolt against the ineffective anti-racism efforts by soccer‘s international administrators. Until now, players have been required, under threat of cards and suspensions, to take no action in response to racist abuse from the crowd, but instead to leave it the issue to the referee and match officials. But the efforts by FIFA and its affiliates — wrist-slap fines imposed on teams and national federations whose fans have transgressed being the strongest sanction used thus far — haven’t stopped the abuse. Boateng’s action was a defiant rebuke, not only to the racists in the crowd, but to the officialdom that has failed to effectively tackle the problem. If walking off becomes a trend,  which it threatens to do, it will present a profound crisis for the game’s administrators.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter expressed ambivalence in his first public response to the Boateng incident: In comments reported Sunday, he  told Abu Dhabi’s National newspaper that he supported Boateng and that FIFA would maintain a zero-tolerance policy on racism, but added that “I don’t think [walking off] is the solution.” He continued: “I don’t think you can run away, because eventually you can run away if you lose a match. This issue is a very touchy subject, but I repeat there is zero tolerance of racism in the stadium; we have to go against that.”  The only solution, Blatter, said, was “to be very harsh with the sanctions – and the sanctions must be a deduction of points or something similar.” Meaningful sanctions would mark a shift, rather than continuity of the currently policy, however. Until now, teams have faced only small-change financial penalties when their fans have racially abused players.

As things stand, Boateng would face punishment if he left the field in a competitive game, but the player has warned that he intends to repeat his action if encountering similar abuse. “I don’t care what game it is, a friendly, Italian league or Champions League match, I would walk off again,” he told CNN on Friday.

And the huge outpouring of support from fellow players — and even from AC Milan’s owner, a certain Mr. Silvio Berlusconi — underscores the view that Boateng’s action was a moment of rupture: “I was angry and I was sad, but it all came together and I said I don’t want to play anymore,” he told CNN. “It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve heard these things, but I’m 25 now and I’ve had enough this bullshit.”

They had initially tried to restrain him from leaving the field, but when he walked, Boateng’s teammates followed, and even many in the crowd applauded. If it had been a competitive fixture, UEFA would be in a quandary: The European body actually suspended two black players from England for gesturing angrily at the crowd after suffering a whole game of racial abuse, and then being assaulted by Serb players and officials. Some of the Serb players and coaching staff involved were given longer suspensions, but their federation’s only punishment was a $105,000 fine. More activist football personalities such as former France captain Lillian Thuram suggested at the time that Serbia should be warned that any racial hostility from their fans in any future game would result in ejection from international competition.

Given the storm of protest  over the Serbia-England verdict, both FIFA President Sepp Blatter and UEFA President Michel Platini urged UEFA’s disciplinary committee to revisit their findings.

FIFA and UEFA have long sought to protect their multibillion dollar franchise from association with racism, which might unsettle some of their global consumer-brand sponsors. But despite repeatedly denouncing racism, they haven’t managed to stop it from being a problem in stadiums, and have effectively tied the hands of players in responding. Blatter had been at the center of an earlier firestorm after appearing, in a CNN interview, to diminish the impact of racism in the game.

Now, Boateng has potentially created a turning point.

“He’s raised the bar by taking this action and being so widely praised for it, because other footballers in the same situation will now have to respond to his lead,” says Duke University historian Laurent Dubois, who has written extensively on soccer and blogs at Soccer Politics . “It’s a pivotal moment because Boateng has introduced a new option, which creates a moral quandary for his fellow players. Many black players believe that only when football clubs and federations are made to pay a price for racism in the stadium will they act decisively to resolve it. The next step will be doing it in a place where it really hurts a team or a tournament — in a competitive match. That would create an institutional crisis for FIFA.”

(VIDEO: Mario Balotelli On Soccer Racism)

Some football pundits — and even Boateng’s former teammate and fellow black player Clarence Seedorf — repeated the argument that stopping the game simply rewards the racists. But the Ghanaian’s action drew a huge outpouring of support from some of the game’s most celebrated players. “It was brave of Kevin-Prince Boateng to do what he did today, and it was the right thing,” tweeted former French World Cup winner and Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira.  “We need to stand up and stand together. Well done.”

There were also salutes from, among others, Manchester City and Belgium captain Vincent Kompany  and Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand. Former AC Milan and Dutch legend Ruud Gullit  tweeted: “Great action of #princeboateng and again the referee didn’t do anything. Very proud of #milan who support boateng…” Nor was the support confined to black players.

Boateng and the players who’re supporting him have put the onus on fans and officials to stamp out racism, just as they have stamped out other forms of hooliganism at European stadiums two decades ago. That’s a course of action Thuram has been urging. Interviewed last year over racist comments attributed to French football officials, Thuram said:

“Imagine if all those players on the French national team today declared that, until something is done about this case, they’ll refuse to wear the jersey. You’d see things get worked out very quickly. Rosa Parks left a mark on history because one day she, and African-Americans, said: ‘We can’t sit in any seat we’d like? Well, then we won’t get on the bus.’ If players did the same thing, the French Federation would take the problem of racism in football much more seriously… That’s why I think they need to stand up and say, ‘If that’s the way it is, then you can go on without us.’ And you’ll see, there will be a response. Because at that point you’ll be hurting the money men behind sports, and they won’t accept it.”

Boateng has acted on Thuram’s call to rebellion — and  his stance has been greatly amplified and reinforced by social media. “Thanks to social media, the whole football world has seen the video of Boateng’s action, and that has allowed an event in an irrelevant game at a marginal club to potentially start an international firestorm,” says Sean Jacobs, a professor in International Affairs at the New School for Social Research and editor of the Africasacountry blog. “Then, Twitter became the vehicle for dozens of other top players to come out and back Boateng’s action, creating a groundswell of support for a challenge to the status quo of football’s handling of crowd racism.”

Sepp Blatter should be worried. FIFA is viewed by many players as feckless in dealing with racism in the game. Just five years from now, the Federation will stage its multibillion-dollar quadrennial centerpiece World Cup tournament in Russia, which remains a hotbed of racist and fascist mobilization in football stadiums. Three weeks ago, Russia’s top club, Zenit St. Petersburg hit the headlines when their largest fan organization demanded that only white footballers play on the team, and racial abuse of black players is commonplace in the country’s professional league. Zenit will be in the spotlight on Valentine’s Day when English club Liverpool visit for a Europa League match, with the Reds expected to start three or four black players. If footballers elect to draw a line in the sand by warning that crowd racism will bring an end to games, FIFA could be put in an untenable position. Or, at least, it will be unless the game’s administrators find the courage to start imposing some real pain on clubs and federations that fail to stamp it out before then.

(MORE: Zenit’s Nadir: Russian Team’s Fans Call For Whites-Only Policy)