Fans in Europe have such an insanely powerful effect on soccer that their passion helps make the atmosphere of a professional European match unique. However, there is a dark side to the unrivaled passion European soccer fans have, and it’s reared its ugly head way too many times. Racism in European soccer has been a significant issue for way too long, and there seems to be no improvement despite different attempts from league officials and players. Interventions like the UEFA says No To Racism campaign and the English Premier League supporting players from all 20 clubs kneeling before kickoff to advocate for racial equality have been efforts put in place to relax racial tensions between Black players and the fans.
This racial prejudice from fans in Europe is nothing new. In 2006, in a Spanish league game where Barcelona matched up against Zaragoza, Cameroonian and Barcelona star striker, Samuel Eto’o, was subjected to racial abuse from Zaragoza fans. They were relentless with racial slurs and monkey chants directed to Eto’o; it got so bad that he threatened to leave the field. He would have, had his teammates not besought him not to give the bigots what they wanted. That was almost 15 years ago, and at the time, it meant very little to a 6-year-old me, but now I understand the magnitude of what went on that night.
The shocking thing is that even with the increased awareness today, it doesn’t feel like things have gotten better; it may now actually be the worst it’s ever been. In last summer’s UEFA Euro tournament, England matched up with Italy in a thrilling final. The game was decided by penalty kicks in which Italy came out victorious. England’s final three penalty kick takers all missed, and all the three were Black. In the game’s immediate aftermath, they were flooded with racial abuse on social media and threats to their lives. Even though there was a massive outpouring of support following the game from people to make these Black athletes feel better, that still didn’t stop the racial abuse from bigots.
The countless attempts to correct the racist behavior amongst European soccer fans do not seem to have worked. Where does it stem from and how can it be curbed? The answer to that, in my opinion, can be rooted from two places. The first is that clubs don’t condemn/reprimand fans enough for their behavior, so the fans don’t end up ever facing serious enough consequences.
Let’s first dive into what these European clubs do to enable these racist attacks from fans. Clubs are often hesitant to label acts of racism as racist, and they often characterize them as just passion or ways to “distract” opponents. In Serie A, Italy’s highest level of club soccer, fans regularly throw things at Black players and often direct monkey chants towards them with no retribution for their actions. Romelu Lukaku, a Belgian-Congolese Soccer player, was subject to racist taunts from Calgairi fans in late 2019. A spokesperson for the Curva Nord (northern end) section of fans said that, “Italians are not racist, we just have our ways of distracting opponents.” They excused the racist acts Lukaku experienced all through this statement and chalked it up as just gamesmanship from the fans. They also denied that Italy has ever had a problem with racism in soccer. If teams are not willing to condemn the bigoted behavior from fans, then who will?