RACISM IN SPORT: Big problem in European soccer

:frowning: By Matthew Schofield
Knight Ridder Newspapers
BERLIN - Robbie Russell was concentrating too hard onthe professional soccer game he was playing to noticethe torrent of racial slurs or the first couple of dozentimes he was spat on.

But when the 24-year-old African-American fromAmherst, Mass., felt fans tugging at his jersey andturned around last weekend in the small western Norwegian town of Sogndal, he noticed what came next. Awoman, separated from him by 2 feet and a waist-highfence, hawked a loogie, right in my eye.'' He turned away from the rain of spit and shouts ofape’’ and much worse, and found a referee threateninghim for slowing down play. At that moment and in theweek since, Russell, a second team all-American at DukeUniversity, said he often felt overwhelmed.
I really do feel like I'm tackling this thing on myown,'' he said. Since I went public with it after thegame, and it’s made front-page news in Norway, I’veheard a lot of other minority players have had similarexperiences.’’
Their stories sound like Jackie Robinson afterbreaking baseball’s color line in late 1940s America,but they’re not uncommon in present-day Europe. LeonMann, a spokesman for the Kick Racism Out of Football(Soccer) campaign in England, thinks it’s a backlashamong fans who resent their countries’ becoming moreopen to immigrants.
We focus on football because it's so high profile,''he said. But there is a rise - in Britain, in France,in Eastern Europe - of anti-immigration policies andpolitical parties that promote a racist, anti-Semiticline.’’
Mean-spirited taunts long have been part of soccer inEurope, where fans tend to have almost primeval lifetimeloyalties to teams from their neighborhoods, towns,cities or nations.
But those who study the issue say racist chants gowell beyond traditional rivalries. A study by theEuropean Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia,based in Vienna, Austria, found that 1 in 10 Europeanfan-club Web sites contain racist slogans. In Italy,that number jumped to 1 in 3. Several sites included thewords to stadium chants, such as I'd rather be a Pakithan a Turk'' and Gas a Jew, Jew, Jew, stick him inthe oven. . . . ‘’
Fans in Macedonia and Slovakia mimicked ape noises andreportedly threw bananas at black players during gameswith England.
Things like that have happened frequently enough thatone top European coach, Gerard Houllier of Liverpool,England, announced that he’d pull his team from thefield the next time his players were subjected to racistabuse. Racism is a real problem in football,'' hesaid. It will take something spectacular - I meansomething drastic - to end this situation.’’
Within the past month, a high-profile soccer figure inEngland - Big'' Ron Atkinson, a former ManchesterUnited coach and national television commentator - wasfired after he called a black French player a lazy f— n—’’ when he thought he was off-air but wasbroadcasting to much of the Middle East. Atkinson hasapologized profusely.
Fans in Glasgow, Scotland, chanted racist epithets ata black player during a high-profile game between thecity’s biggest teams, and threw potatoes to mock theIrish heritage of others. Last weekend in Slovakia, theoffice of the country’s leading anti-racism-in-soccerorganization was destroyed by firebomb.
It's a pan-European problem,'' Mann said. A lot ofit is neo-Nazis and skinheads, but there’s more thanjust that.’’

Kurt Wachter is the European project coordinator forFootball Against Racism in Europe, which is supported bythe European Union and based in Austria. He said therewere 20 instances of racist abuse reported inhigh-profile European professional soccer games lastyear, far fewer than there would’ve been 15 years ago,so it may be declining in the topmost leagues.
In the Norwegian 1st Division, where Russell plays onone of Norway’s better teams, racial abuse comes as aspecial shock, because Scandinavia has a reputation fortolerance.
Norway’s reaction to the fans’ abuse of Russell wasstrong, at least in newspapers and on television. Fourfans found to have been involved in the assault werebanned for life from soccer matches.
What happened to Russell in Norway, it's reallyhorrible,'' Wachter said. But at least it was noticed andprotested against. In Austria and other countries, theincidents never get reported, and if they do thenewspapers downplay them, saying, ‘It’s just part offootball.’ ‘’
He said soccer and politics were closely tied in muchof Europe, and that political parties, including thosewith racist platforms, recruited from fan clubs.
You can't separate football from life in Europe,''he said. It will share all the good, and all thebad.’’

Russell, a defender, said a number of people stoppedhim on the streets, apologizing and asking him not tojudge Norway by that incident. He’s played for SogndalFootball Club for three years, and he said Norway’sreputation for racial tolerance was among the best inEurope. But that just makes the point that improvementis needed everywhere, he added.
I admit, it's in the back of my mind for the comingweekend,'' he said. But you can’t let ignorant andstupid people rule your life. I’m paid to play soccer.I’ll be playing this weekend.’’