If you consider yourself a soccer fan, start paying attention.
Let me tell you about a match that you probably weren’t watching: Dynamo Kyiv at Shakhtar Donetsk in the Klasychne derby, the El Clásico of the Ukrainian Premier League.
I’m not here to recap the game. I don’t mean to bring you here because of some strike from 40 yards out or some winger dribbling through defenders à la Maradona or because each team bagged six goals apiece. If you came for the intensity of a derby match, you would have left with something entirely different, something beyond a pedestrian 1-0 scoreline.
You would have seen the shameful side of soccer.
In the 74th minute, Shakhtar’s Brazilian captain, Taison, raised his middle finger at a section of jeering away fans. He took the ball from the Dynamo goalkeeper and punted it toward them before breaking down in tears.
It may not be as noticeable in the United States, but racial abuse is far more common than you’d think in a sport played by men and women from every corner of the world.
In response to the Dynamo supporters’ chants, the referee enacted the first and second steps of the new UEFA anti-racism protocol, first issuing a PA announcement to the crowd and then temporarily suspending the match. When the players returned to the field, social media platforms erupted after Taison was shown the red card for his actions.
It was not the first time that a racially abused player had been punished by soccer authorities. Back in 2017, Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari was given a yellow card for dissent when he allegedly urged the referee to stop racist chants coming from the crowd. When nothing was done, Muntari left the pitch in protest and received a red card for his actions.
On-field demonstrations by survivors of abuse have the best of intentions behind them, but they ultimately accomplish very little — more often than not, they play into the hands of people who want to see their targets crack.
What, then, does soccer need to do?
An increase in the diversity of the game has not brought acceptance. Far from Ukraine in the English top-flight, about 33% of the Premier League’s players are from minority backgrounds, a number that has doubled since the beginning of the competition in 1992. Even with more and more teams now relying on players of color, 194 hate crimes were reported at matches just last season in England, an alarming 66% increase over the course of the 2018-19 campaign.
The fact that these crimes are being reported at all is good, but the trend itself is not positive.
Even the belief that hecklers can be silenced with outstanding play fails to hold water. Rather than building respect, strong performances can actually have the opposite effect.
Former Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku is Serie A’s second leading scorer, and he had enjoyed a positive start to life in Italy before he stepped up to take a penalty against Cagliari.
The home fans allegedly hurled monkey noises at one of the most dangerous forwards in the country. Lukaku deposited what would be the game-winning penalty into the net, and instead of sprinting to the corner in celebration, he stood and stared into the crowd.
Shockingly, a group of Inter Milan’s own fans defended the Cagliari supporters. A statement released by Inter’s ultras group claimed the chants were not racist. In Italy, they said, such instances were just fans trying to help their team win.
That’s not what being a fan means.
It means holding both opposing and friendly supporters to the same moral standard; to support and respect players no matter where they’re from.
Don’t be a racist and don’t tolerate racism. It’s that simple.
And yes, there are fans around the world who do exactly that — we just need the resources to make our voices heard.
In baseball stadiums across the United States, fans are advised to text a security hotline if they encounter abuse of any kind. Stewards are notified anonymously and will monitor the offending party before removing them from the grounds.
English soccer’s Kick It Out app is the closest thing to such a process, allowing users to attach videos of abusive fan behavior and upload reports to the FA. Outside of the U.K., though, such programs are rare.
Fans need a reliable method of calling out racism not just in England, but everywhere soccer is played. Meanwhile, FIFA must enforce stricter punishments on offending teams and research fan informant systems in stadiums, a potentially large ask for an organization that disbanded its anti-racism task force back in 2016.
Off-pitch intervention, whether a meter away in the stands or at the FIFA headquarters in Zürich, Switzerland, is the only way to make the progress that our players cannot.
Right now, it seems so very far away.
Chanun Ong covers women’s soccer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.