Football versus Racism – One match that FIFA could not, but must win!

Recent developments around football, especially in Europe, reveal that FIFA may only be play-acting and paying lip service to the issue of racism in football. The body responsible for football in the world, a sport that has tamed bridged human differences, including religion, has failed in the battle against the worst scourge in human history – slavery. Racism is an extension of the vestiges of slavery, festering in a different form. It is, indeed, a big shock that football, probably the most powerful ‘weapon’ in the world, a simple game that has conquered most known prejudices, has been largely ineffective against the discrimination of Black persons (for that’s what racism really is) in the world of football.

This is the 21st Century and racism is a reality on the football grounds of several big and small clubs and countries, particularly in Europe. The Black person is the most affected by the scourge, either as a pawn, a victim, or a hopeless onlooker in the battle of White and Coloured races. It appears that FIFA may be treating the issue that is escalating and threatening the future of the body and of football itself without the desired seriousness.

Racism in absolute reality may be targeted at all people of colour, but it is mostly at those of black African descent, their dark skin the defining element. Slavery would just not go away from the human race. Some races cannot easily shed prejudices embedded in history, and accept that all men are equal. FIFA should have tackled racism in football and eradicated it from the face and lexicon of world football immediately it started to rear its ugly head to deface the beautiful game.

Towards the end of his long reign as president of FIFA, Mr Sepp Blatter, as part of his strategy to secure the support of the 53 African football federations, set up a special task force to address the issue of discrimination against Black players around the world. The body was to investigate the issue and make recommendations to stem the tide of the growing menace that is introducing a dangerous new dimension to football.

The case of Kevin-Prince Boateng, the Ghanaian international playing for Inter Milan, triggered FIFA’s reaction. Kevin had walked out of the field in the middle of a friendly football match with Pro Patria, following racial chants and abuse by some spectators in 2013. His action was unprecedented. It could trigger an avalanche should it escalate and become a new trend. Other Black players joined in the chorus of condemnation and called for action.

Sepp Blatter seized the moment and set up the Anti-Racism Task Force. Members of the Adhoc body included South Africa’s Tokyo Sexwale, AIPS President Gianni Merlo, FIFPRO’s Theo Van Seggelen, Football-Against-Racism-in-Europe, FARE’s President, and Howard Webb, former renowned EPL Referee, international Nigerian journalist, Osasu Obayiuwana and Kevin-Prince Boateng. Some players were coopted into the task force but could not contribute to the discussions because meetings coincided with their match fixtures in their various clubs, rendering their contributions zero. They included Serey Die, of Cote D’Ivoire, Jozy Altidore, a USA International and Yaya Toure of Manchester City. The task force met only three times in three and a half years!

As soon as Giovanni Infantino became President of FIFA, the body was terminated. FIFA claimed that the task force had completed its work and that all its recommendations had been implemented. Nothing could be farther from the truth. According to Osasu’s report in 2016, Lillian Thuram, a 1998 World Cup winner for France, wrote “I am extremely shocked that such an important organization that can reach millions of people, especially children, can say, in 2016, in this global political situation, that ‘the job is done’, referring to the work of the task force. The only things done by FIFA were “‘stiff’ sanctions against clubs and fans and a program of education for global fans to change their attitude and eliminate prejudices”.

These yielded nothing.

Infantino’s words have not been backed by any strong resolve to do more than it is doing already. What followed were slaps on the wrist of perpetrators of these ugly acts, ‘slaps’ too feeble to effect the kind of change that would halt the taunting of Black players, the chanting of monkey sounds and the depiction of ‘banana-eating’ in the African jungle. Why has racism defied every intervention of FIFA and is still festering in football?

Osasu’s report written after the task force was dissolved in 2016, showed that although they went about their assignment seriously, three years down the line, they had to conclude that FIFA was not serious and the project was not designed by FIFA to succeed. I have reluctantly reached that same unfortunate but realistic conclusion – world football administration, like the rest of the world systems, is not designed so that any Black country or Black person should enjoy equality and succeed. Racism and discrimination are the major tools that can stop that actualization. European football is being blatantly and seriously inflicted with a fresh dose of Racism and discrimination. Racial chants and abuses are increasing and spreading to several countries beyond the most notorious ones of Russia, Italy, Spain, and a few others.

On October 14, this year, against Bulgaria in Sofia, England’s Raheem Sterling and his other Black English colleagues, were victims of Nazi and racist chants by segments of the spectators. Such stories are becoming more rampant against the claim by FIFA that it is doing all it can to arrest the plague.

The reality is that the Black person is not the most loved race in the world. Every other race claims and assumes intellectual superiority over them, even though the facts on ground and history stand those on the head. Simply put, racism in football is a continuation of 600 years of slavery, colonialism, and neo-colonialism against those of African descent. Blacks must appreciate this and change their attitude and strategy in fighting the ugly scourge. They must not allow racism to establish any firm roots in the last and powerful frontier – football. FIFA’s professed efforts have not yielded positive results because they are not designed to do so. Otherwise, why would the power of football, the power that Nelson Mandela professed in 1995 could change the world, fail when deployed to get rid of racism in football? The weapon is not well deployed.

FIFA, represented mostly by people of the dominant race in the world, lack the cultural will to undertake this effective deployment. So they bluff and play games. They must be ‘helped’ and forced to do what is right and just and effective by the aggrieved victims. The solutions do not lie in FIFA’s half-hearted, cosmetic, publicity stunts that have largely failed. So far, perpetrators in the terraces are treated with kid gloves. There must be a strong resolve to maximize punishment and escalate the cost to those engaging in any racist practice in football all over the world.

Racism is a return to slavery and must be stopped by all means and at all costs. National Football Federations lack the capacity, resources, political power and will to deal with the global problem. It is only FIFA that has the might and the means and can do it, yet it won’t.

Black countries around the world (through their federations) must raise the ante and fight the racism war differently. They did it in Montreal, Canada, and changed the face of South Africa for good, forever. They can do it again. Do not ask me how on these pages. What I know is that the way things are going now, football’s power to tame the tiger is been whittled down by silent complicity of FIFA to keep things the way they are. I don’t think there will ever be a complete end to the battle of the races. It has always existed. It exists now. It will always exist in the future.

Yet, football must find a way to be free from the blight of racism.

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