The events of last week brought the attention of the world’s media to the small Italian town of Busto Arsizio where AC Milan footballer Kevin Prince Boateng walked off the pitch in a mid-season friendly against local side Pro Patria. Boateng and a number of his teammates had been subjected to concerted racist abuse since the kick off and by the 26th minute Boateng had had enough.
After receiving the ball out on the left wing, he heard the monkey chants yet again, and turning to the corner of the stadium he kicked the ball toward the corner of the stand and the source of the abuse. He headed for the tunnel, taking off his shirt and ignoring the requests of opposition players and the referee to return to the game. He was followed by his team captain Massimo Ambrosini and the rest of his teammates. The game was not to continue.
Most of the world was unaware that this game was taking place, and it is worth noting that most of the 2,000 souls present applauded Boateng and the Milan players as they left the field. However, this mid-season friendly and Boateng’s actions have had implications far beyond a Lombardy village. Boateng is said to be considering his career in Italian football, while the Berlusconi family has backed his actions and Milan coach Masimilliano Allegri has said he would back similar walk-offs in future games.
Although there has been further widespread support from the footballing community, press and wider society, there was a deafening silence from FIFA headquarters in Zurich and president Sepp Blatter. The last two years have seen racism in football regain an unwelcome prominence in the sport; the high profile cases involving Luis Suarez and John Terry have been unpleasant reminders of English football’s dark days and the scenes at the Serbia v England U-21 game and the Serbian FA’s subsequent response were also particularly unedifying. While these were some of the more high profile cases, they certainly were not the only ones. Through all of this, Blatter and FIFA have declared that there is a zero tolerance policy towards racism, but the barrage of fines, slightly bigger fines, well meaning speeches from club captains etc. have had little impact on behaviour in the stands. In Blatter’s recent comments about Boateng’s, actions he stated that he does not believe that leaving the field of play is the answer, and has said that “very harsh” sanctions including point deductions or similar should be used instead to tackle the problem. But is this just more of the same from FIFA?
The messages from the game’s governing bodies, their support for community programmes, and education have helped to change public perceptions on racism, but there remains a hardcore who can or will not be reached in that way. The actions of Boateng and his Milan teammates could be the method that completes the good work already begun, and may finally rid football stadiums of this racist hardcore minority. The walk off as response to racist behaviour does two important things. Firstly it stops the game and changes the dynamic in the stadium. The vast majority of supporters are immediately turned against a vocal racist minority. If you have paid say £80 to see a game and it is halted in the first half because of a small number of racist idiots, it creates a peer monitoring response. Average fans are more likely to identify the trouble-makers and report them to the authorities, as it empowers positive action in the majority of supporters against the racist minority. Secondly, it would finally create an economic incentive for the clubs and governing bodies to take action.
James Connolly noted that the gradual disappearance of slavery in the 19th century was precipitated when the moral force of the abolitionist movements was joined by economic conditions which no longer favoured slavery. The emergence of a large working class as a result of the industrial revolution meant there was a source of cheap wage labour that was more economically appealing to the wealthy than importing slaves to be bought and sold for large sums. Similarly, perhaps only when racist behaviour begins costing FIFA serious money will we see a real zero tolerance approach.
Boateng has stated that he would walk off if he received similar abuse in any game, whether it was a friendly or a Champions League tie. Imagine the situations if a walk off occurred in a Champions League semi-final; not only would there be tens of thousands of disgruntled ticket holders but there would also be irate sponsors and television companies that fund FIFA, UEFA and national associations to the tune of millions. Only when MasterCard and Ford, media networks and fans groups en masse are mobilised against FIFA, highlighting lost revenue and schedule and fixture disruption, will the clubs and governing bodies be forced to act. TV, sponsorship and ticket sales represent the financial lifeblood of the game. Players walking off, cancelling the game in response to racist outbursts impacts on all three revenue streams. Only when that happens, when racist behaviour begins to hit the grandees of the governing bodies in the pocket, will we see concerted action to kick it out of football stadiums.