It’s a bit overwhelming when you consider the scale of protests against police brutality and institutional and societal racism across the globe we’re seeing. There have been massive demonstrations in London, Brussels, Rome, Paris, Tokyo, New Zealand Ghana, South Africa,, and many other places.
While the world’s most-popular sport is still largely frozen due to the coronavirus, the league that is up and running hasn’t been immune either. This past weekend, both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund players as a whole wore shirts during warm-ups supporting the cause. Liverpool took a knee en masse in training and posted the image to their official social media accounts, and several players posted to their own as well (Liverpoool’s past dealings with racism aren’t exactly perfect, though the club belatedly apologized to Patrice Evra recently).
This followed the previous weekend where individual players in the Bundesliga staged their own support. Americans Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie and Monchengladbach’s Marcus Thuram took a knee after scoring.
While FIFA usually stands against players wearing undershirts for various causes or staging any kind of protest during matches, in a delicious bit of a lack of self-awareness, the organization called on leagues to show “common sense” when considering any discipline for these players, such as yellow cards or fines for being off-uniform.
This is about the only time FIFA or UEFA or any other soccer governing body has shown common sense in this area.
Racism in soccer is still rampant, especially in Italy and Eastern European countries. Just this past October, England players were subjected to some of the more disgusting and vile chants and gestures from the home Bulgaria fans the sport has seen in recent history. Bulgaria’s punishment? Having to play one game behind closed doors and a fine of £73,000 from UEFA.
Romelu Lukaku of Inter Milan was taunted ruthlessly and heinously in an away match earlier this season. He was told by his own fans that it was just part of the game. Neither the fans nor the club, Cagliari, were punished for the chants.
Antonio Rudiger said he was racially taunted at Tottenham during a match in December, but no fan nor Spurs as a club were ever punished for it.
These are the kinds of incidents that are still prevalent in the game.
Both FIFA and UEFA have a three-step protocol for when racist abuses take place during a match. The first is to pause the match for an announcement over the PA. The second is to suspend it, sending the players back to their dressing rooms and make another announcement. The third is to abandon the match altogether. Rarely, if ever, has a match been abandoned.
It has fallen on the players to stop playing or walk off, which isn’t fair to them. It shouldn’t be up to the players to have to receive this abuse and then also police it. And convincing 21 other players to walk off with you isn’t simple either. And most feel that the problem is only getting worse across Europe. It isn’t only in the U.S. that the rise of far-right politics and movements have spread their tentacles into sports.
Neither FIFA or UEFA have stopped a match themselves for this kind of behavior, nor have they docked teams points because of their fans’ abhorrent actions. Paltry fines and a minimal amount of games played without fans don’t seem to be much of a deterrent, and clearly both organizations are going to have to deal with much swifter and harsher penalties in light of what the world looks like now and will look like in the near future.
Most organizations, and UEFA and FIFA in particular, have hoped this is something that will just go away. They’ll do their campaigns and pregame ceremonies, but it’s clear the problem is entrenched. FIFA can ask leagues to show common sense in not disciplining players showing support for such an obvious cause, but it can’t bring itself to toss teams from World Cup qualifying for being the exact thing these players are protesting. How does it think it will change anything?
In more evidence of the sports’ governance being inert and unwieldy, U.S. Soccer is thinking it maybe should talk about perhaps proposing a lifting of its ban on players kneeling during the national anthem. They instituted the ban after Megan Rapinoe showed solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and took a knee before a U.S. Women’s National Team game back in 2016.
Now that both Kaepernick and Rapinoe have been proven right, or just more right as it were, U.S. Soccer has no choice but to walk it back. Strange how an organization meant to represent the U.S. thought it would get away cleanly from taking away its players’ right to protest, a bedrock of the country after all. The fact that such a move has to hurdle through three meetings and various committees is a brilliant example of the obstacles any change needs in just about any forum.