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Soccer's racism problem persists because leagues choose not to address the issue

Soccer leagues around the world have proven time and time again that they will not take a stand against racism in the sport. (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It is now entirely clear that soccer has no real interest in solving its racism problem.

Of course, the sport is not some monolithic entity that acts in concert with itself. Soccer is many people and organizations and clubs, separately doing their own thing. And they aren’t all bad or misguided. But there are now too many dots out there not to connect them. They form a coherent picture, one of a game broadly uninterested in fixing an unrelenting problem.

Too many opportunities to take meaningful action against this stain on the sport have been missed — willingly left unaddressed. 

Here’s the latest of those dots. Two weeks ago, FC Porto’s Malian striker Moussa Marega was racially abused by the home fans at a Portuguese league away game at Vitoria Guimaraes. He walked off the field as his teammates implored him not to and was eventually substituted off. On Wednesday, the league dropped its punitive hammer on Guimaraes.

A $795 fine.

Marega was understandably appalled and, on social media, sarcastically responded: “No!! It’s too much!! @LigaPortugal can I pay it for them??”

FC Porto's Moussa Marega received racial abuse during a recent match at Vitoria Guimaraes. (Photo by Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

It gets worse. Guimaraes was also fined some $3,800 for throwing objects at the Porto bench, $4,500 for bringing flares into the stadium and about $8,000 for throwing seats.

Throwing seats, in other words, was assessed as being 10 times worse than racially abusing an opposing player.

The absence of any kind of perspective on the scope and corrosiveness of the problem is staggering. But the Portuguese league is hardly alone in this. Before it was derailed by the outbreak of the coronavirus, this season of Italy’s Serie A was on track to be remembered as a campaign that saw an exceptional escalation of racist abuse. Not that Serie A was ever free of it. Hardly. But the problem had seemed to be receding, however slowly, for decades. Nonetheless, the first months of the season were marred by one incident after another, invariably made worse by claims that events that were most definitely racist were not, in fact, racist.

The racism itself was almost as grievous as the subsequent gaslighting. And then, of course, there were those posters.

Yet, for a little while there, it seemed like real progress was being made. UEFA instituted protocols last year. Games would be stopped for racist abuse. On a second offense, teams would go into the locker rooms. On a third, games could be abandoned. In October, a Euro 2020 qualifier between Bulgaria and England was twice stopped over racist abuse of England’s three black players on the field. The English apparently opted not to leave the field and finished the game instead. It was something of a missed opportunity, but their decision was also understandable.

Still, there seemed to be a momentum building. Progress even.

And then it just sort of fizzled.

Worse still, that protocol has now been weaponized for other purposes.

Spain, like Italy, has seen a spike in racist incidents in La Liga. Yet only one game has been abandoned through the protocol. In December, Rayo Vallecano fans chanted that Albacete forward Roman Zozulya, who is Ukrainian, was a Nazi — with a rude adjective — after compromising pictures turned up on social media. Zozulya has denied being a neo-Nazi. His agent, curiously, said in an interview with Cadena Ser that Zozulya is “not a neo-Nazi, of course not — he’s simply a Ukrainian patriot.”

But it’s nonetheless noteworthy that the only time the protocol was executed to its full extent was to protect somebody who wasn’t a victim of racism but instead, someone espousing a racist ideology. La Liga defended itself, sort of, and incomprehensibly, by claiming that it continues “working to eradicate violence, racism and xenophobia in the stadiums of Spanish professional football.”

Last month, La Liga refused to punish a Mallorca coach for making a racist gesture at his own Japanese player. “At La Liga, we do not consider that the intention of this gesture carries a racist attitude,” it said in a statement to CNN.

Stranger still are last weekend’s events in Germany, where the protocol was enacted to protect the feelings of a billionaire owner who felt that opposing fans were being mean to him. Dietmar Hopp, the 79-year-old software mogul, bought his local village club Hoffenheim 30 years ago and turned it into a Bundesliga regular. But that has never sat well with opposing fans in a league where outside investment is very nearly impossible. Anytime banners or chants are made to point this out, however, Hopp lashes out with an uncommon vindictiveness, successfully prosecuting a slew of fans for slandering him. 

Hoffenheim owner Dietmar Hopp has been a frequent target of his club's opponents to the point that the Bundesliga has enacted the anti-racism protocol to address fan behavior he disapproves. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images)

As his spat with fans escalated yet again when Hoffenheim was hammered 6-0 by Bayern Munich — through a banner casting aspersions on the profession of Hopp’s mother, while some in other stadiums depicted Hopp’s face in crosshairs — the game was twice halted, through the protocol. The German league has effectively hijacked the anti-racism protocol to address any kind of fan behavior it disapproves of, yet only deploying it to protect a powerful and sensitive man.

By using the protocol for other ends than the problem it was created to address, it is diminished. By using it only for other purposes, it is defanged. Retooling it to fight anything but racism speaks to an insistence on ignoring the actual issue.

There have been plenty of opportunities for soccer to take a stand, to do something — anything. It has consistently chosen not to. It doesn’t care enough to.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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