When Borussia Dortmund and Belgian National Team soccer player Michy Batshuayi tweeted “LOL, must be my imagination.” on the racist chanting made by fans of Italian soccer club Atalanta toward him during the Europa League round of 16 matches, reactions on the internet are surprisingly mixed. (The Guardian, 2018) Naturally, most of the people on twitter are shocked, “so sorry you have to deal with this in this day and age.” One fan wrote, (@rkoser, 2018) However, not all people seem to support the player, some people on Twitter took this as a joking opportunity: “Tbf (To be frank) you can make any noise at me for £80k.” one fan wrote, (@andsim0, 2018) more than this, some people even took this chance to further demonstrate how far racism can go. “Nobody cares about your feeling.” One person wrote. (@ShahabFTW, 2018)
« Its just monkey noise who cares ? » 😂😂😂 2018 guys …
— Michy Batshuayi (@mbatshuayi) March 29, 2018
Racism has undoubtedly become a major concern in professional sports, and especially in soccer in contemporary society. Although UEFA and FIFA have long been declared their battle towards racism, with slogans such as “Let’s Kick Racism out of Football” and “Say No to Racism”. However, contemporary racism is rarely being seen during the physical interaction, through the development of the internet, and web 2.0. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook or even Reddit are increasingly becoming the new “safe space” for racist to “vent their emotion”, or “being themselves.” In this article, I will be examining the sources, development, and reasons for the persistence of racism in soccer, how racism still play a role in this biggest sports in the world, and most importantly, I will be arguing that social media platforms have become the new major battleground for soccer racism and how it can be used to both promote and strike this racism on the beautiful game.
When people think of soccer, at first glance, it might be hard to link the sport to racism, as it seems that it is open and accepted by people from around the world. It has been considered as a sport for everybody: every race, and every age. However, under this seemingly racially diverse environment, Racism is a major problem in this sport. In European championships, players who are not white suffer regular racist acts committed by spectators as well as other players. Among the most prominent examples are those of Michy Batshuayi in Italy, Mohamed Salah in England, and Blaise Matuidi in France. The highest governing body of the sport, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), as well as Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), have both affirmed the willingness to fight this plague on professional sport. (Ribordy et al., 2012).
Unmasking racism in soccer
It’s crucial to recognize that racism in soccer is a multi-faceted problem that encompasses a broad range of social phenomena, crowd dynamics, or social judgment of play.” (Back et al., as cited in Ribordy et al., 2012) In the world of soccer, it implied the “sociological and political background of soccer fans, soccer culture, economic discrimination of players (Szymanski, as cited in Hylton & Lawrence, 2014), or as scholar Jonathan Long and Kevin Hylton argued, soccer has long been a “white establishment.” (as cited in Ellis & Cleland, 2014) In order to understand the “white establishment”, one must first exam the definition of “white”, and “whiteness”, as Hylton and Lawrence defined, it is more than just a skin colour, it is having the portion of power that is “inflected differently by its intersections, with numerous and competing global, ethnic, political cultural, and racialized discourses” It can also be referred to the group that holds “privileges are not available to othered bodies and various institutions may appear to have no bias towards toward different races.” (2014) In soccer, although the sport has been popular around the world, with players from various ethnicities, this is simply because the white establishment is only “allowing black players to play its white game.” (as cited in Ellis & Cleland, 2014)
One may have argued that this is an extraordinary statement on a sport that is played all over Africa, South America, and Asia, and furthermore, when a glance at practically any club roster anywhere in the world will always reveal players of African origin or descent. In summary, it seemed almost ridiculous for Long and Hylton to connect soccer with the phrase “white game”. However, as scholars Hylton and Lawrence argued, any political, economic, and social conditions that allow for white people to be in positions of power, is white supremacy. (2014) One needs to understand that, to determine racism is not by counting how many black players are there on the soccer field, nor how many black people watch the sport. Instead, it is referring to “a group that exercises power and influence over matters of policy, opinion and even taste and typically resists rather than embraces change.” (Long and Hylton, as cited in Ellis & Cleland, 2014), It’s an influential group with a specified field of activity that effectively runs the show. In other words, if the authorities, the decision makers do not change, the diversity on the field will make little difference.
Social Media: A New Battleground for Soccer Racism
To recognize racism in soccer in contemporary society, understand the history of racism in the world of soccer is crucial. As Cashmore, Ellis and Jamie Cleland stated, racism in soccer emerged in the late 1970s and has persisted ever since. (2014) For a period of time, due to lack of media coverage, or, to put it more evidently, the result of the media’s lack of interest at all. Racism in soccer has almost to be considered vanished, consigned in history, even though there was clear evidence indicated that it remained. However, with the rising of social media platforms, racism in soccer has appeared to be reemerging. The expressions of racism from crowds during the match, the racist language regularly used by players and the abusive messages aimed at players can be revealed easily on social media. It has become a place for not only ordinary people, but also players themselves to expose racism behaviors, people no longer need traditional media to be informed as these social media have created a new platform for them to share their experience, or post their opinions.
However, social media sites can not only be the place for people to expose racism in the soccer field, they have allowed racist thoughts to flourish online as well. Before the creation of social media sites and World Wide Web, the only available outlet for supporters to publicly raise their views on footballing matters was “through a print fanzine (an often humorous magazine-type publication written through supporters’ eyes, which was usually sold at every other home match).” (Cleland, 2013) The creation of these social media platforms on the Internet has allowed for more “active” football fans (those fans who actively participate in the exchange of information with other fans, clubs, supporter organizations, and the media) to engage in everyday asynchronous discussions concerning footballing and non-footballing matters. (Ruddock, 2013) These social media platforms have created a sphere for people to discuss soccer like never before, because of its easy access, and open to almost to all, everybody would be able to post their opinion on their favorite site. but, because of these unique characteristics, it can be extremely hard to monitor and control what people said on such platforms, in this case, manage racism on the platforms can be tricky. As communication and sociology scholar Daniel Burdsey suggested, in contemporary society, racism operates “in complex, nuanced and often covert ways that go under the radar of football authorities and beyond the capacities of anti-racist groups.” (as cited in Cleland, 2013) The advent of social media has only added to the complexity of attempting to tackle racism. Technological advances in communication since the beginning of the 21st century have enabled racist to operate covertly across social media platforms such as Twitter, or Facebook.
Social media platforms allow their users to publish posts of any nature every minute of every day. These social media platforms have moderators who oversee each forum and remove certain offensive posts, but in the majority of cases, it is the fans who challenge each other’s views on certain topics. An example can be found during England’s participation at the 2010 soccer World Cup, a few England soccer fans stated online that those English soccer players who come from immigrant families should not represent England as they are not English. One fan posted his view on social media claiming that “Your parents determine what you are sure. Two Africans having a child in England makes an AFRICAN born in England. It does not make them English.” Another fan stated that “We are told that our ethnic friends are as English as you and me. Yeah right. If a dog is born in a stable it doesn’t make it a horse…” (as cited in Cleland, 2013) While it’s utterly shocking to see this type opinion still exist in current society, one need to cognize that posts such as these provide “clear evidence that hate speech toward racism remains prominent in soccer discourse.” (Butler, as cited in Cleland, 2013) As scholar Peter Millward suggested, evidence of racist discourse such as this shows “how embedded racism is in the everyday practice of some football supporters”, (2013) And it is this that creates the very challenge facing the football authorities looking to tackle racist thoughts and behavior.
It’s crucial to note that one of the main reason why social media is able to play in a major role in soccer racism is its ability to influence people, even before the invention of social media, traditional media has already been doing this for decade, in soccer world, when the infamous head-butt made by French national Zinidine Zidane occurred back in 2006 World Cup final, although It is still not clear exactly what Materazzi said to Zidane, many journalists reported this incident claimed that he insulted Zidane’s mother and sister, even thought there is no evidence at all, many medias have claimed that Materazzi called his mother and sister a “terrorist whore”, invokes a reference to Islam and Muslim identity. (Jiwani, 2008) this association provided by various journalists in their coverage of the head-butting incident has successfully influenced the public at that time, making them involuntarily drawing the connection between Zidane’s action to Islamism, or even worse, terrorism. If traditional media has the ability to influence people this easily, imagine the influence from a media platform that can be accessed, edited by everyone can make.
It is worth noting that while these sickening behaviours do exist on the social media, there are also people who attempt to reinterpret on their social media to create a consensus. “it is clear that there are a lot of backward thinking fans, times are changing boys, Free your mind and the rest will follow.” One fan wrote it on his social media. “I feel disappointed and concerned, to make jokes and sarcastic comments about something as fundamentally serious as racism is pathetic in my view,” Another fan stated, “we all have to think the same and accept the same things if we want to live in ‘nation states’ and anything outside of these norms is scorned.” (as cited in Cleland, 2013) these messages successfully attempted to provide closure by creating an opportunity for a form of reflection.
Racism has always been a major issue in the world of the soccer ever since the very first match, we heard stories of soccer fans shouting racist chants in their stadiums in Italy or Russia. These chants were about the color of their skin and their ethnicity, with some chants are even monkey noises like the Belgian striker Batshuayi faced during his match with Atalanta F.C. during Europa League round of 16. Social media platforms during this situation, can be a place for player like Batshuayi to call out racism, but the majority of the time, as these social media platforms are free for anybody to use, moreover, people are able to express whatever opinion they have. They have become a perfect place for some soccer fans to post racist chants directed at African players. Furthermore, as Cleland and Cashmore stated, these fans would not see themselves or their discourse as racist, these fans “deny they had any intent in what they said and put it down to a joke or a form of banter.” (2013) This is one of the reasons why everyday racist abuse often goes unchallenged on social media sites (particularly on Twitter) and how “more subtle racialization of contemporary soccer culture remain completely unaddressed.” (Müller et al., as cited in Cleland, 2013)
At this time, it’s crucial to ask ourselves, what can be done? Many soccer teams are creating rules and boundaries for what fans can say at stadiums and on social media, but they have done little harm, in many cases, these actions can even damage the soccer teams themselves as well (such as publish fans by playing the games behind closed doors). Ultimately, I believe that the one solution at this time can be for these football organizations to create a connection with the fans, listen to their voices and interact with them directly. As Cleland expressed, the football authorities need to “engage with football supporters and work with them to reduce an anti-Other that retains a place in the everyday discourse for some supporters.” (2013) In the present situation, it seems that it’s nearly impossible to fully eliminate racism and achieve racial equality in world soccer. It might be challenging to cultivate a respectful and tolerant environment when confronted by people that continue to find outlets to openly or secretly express racist discourse, but something needs to be done.
Cashmore, E., & Cleland, J. (2014). Racism. In Football’s dark side: Corruption, homophobia, violence and racism in the beautiful game (pp. 64-80).
Cleland, J. (2014). Racism, Football Fans, and Online Message Boards. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 38(5), 415-431.
Hylton, K. & Lawrence, S. (2015). Reading Ronaldo: Contingent whiteness in the football media. Soccer & Society, 16(5-6), 765-782.
Jiwani, Y. (2008). Zinedine Zidane and the Infamous Head-Butt. Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, 19, 11-33.
Millward, P. (2008). The rebirth of the football fanzine: Using e-zines as a data source. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 32, 299-310.
Millward, P. (2009). Getting “into” Europe: Identification, prejudice, and politics in English football culture. Saarbrucken, Germany: VDM Verlag.
Press, A. (2018, February 23). Chelsea forward Michy Batshuayi accuses Atalanta fans of racism. Retrieved April 10, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/football/2018/feb/23/chelsea-forward-michy-batshuayi-accuses-atalanta-fans-of-racism
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Ruddock, A. (2005). Let’s kick racism out of football—and Lefties too! Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 29, 369-385.
Wagner-Egger, P. Gygax, P. & Ribordy, F. (2012). Racism in Soccer? Perception of Challenges of Black and White Players by White Referees, Soccer Players, and Fans. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 114(1), 275-289.
Picture of Michy Batshuayi: http://sport360.com/article/football/german-bundesliga/265361/chelsea-loanee-michy-batshuayi-scores-brace-on-debut-to-lead-borussia-dortmund-to-3-2-win
Say No to Racism Banner: http://www.soccerclassroom.com/coaching-blog/the-not-so-beautiful-game-how-to-kick-racism-out-of-soccer/
Portrait of Gianni Infantino: http://www.fifa.com/about-fifa/news/y=2017/m=2/news=q-a-with-fifa-president-gianni-infantino-2868390.html
England National Soccer Team: https://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/2013/12/01/whats-wrong-with-the-england-team/
Portrait of Zinedine Zidane: http://www.beinsports.com/us/laliga/news/zinedine-zidane-calm-over-cristiano-ronaldos-/727274
Dislike the Racism in Social Media: https://studentnewsgrid.com/2017/05/racism-rings-rife-social-media/