A rise in racist incidents during soccer (football) matches has drawn attention to the issue of far right-wing groups infiltrating fan-bases throughout Europe.
According to a report published by Kick It Out, a soccer equality charity, discrimination during professional and amateur soccer matches throughout the United Kingdom rose from 469 cases in 2016-17 to 520 in 2017-18.
About 53 percent of the documented discrimination cases were related to racism.
Peter Alegi, a professor of history at Michigan State University, told The Globe Post that racism in European soccer is a long-standing tradition.
“Racism in European football is nothing new. Its long history goes back at least to the ‘monkey’ chants directed at Arthur Wharton, the first black professional football player in England in the 1880s,” Alegi said.
London police are currently investigating alleged racist abuse directed at Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling during a Premier League match between Manchester City and Chelsea last month.
Sterling accused Chelsea fans of hurling racial epithets during his side’s 2-0 victory on December 8.
Four days after the match, members of the Chelsea Headhunters, a soccer hooligan firm, posted images on social media displaying a banner featuring the SS death’s head insignia – the symbol of the Nazi organization responsible for overseeing concentration camps during the Holocaust.
The Chelsea Headhunters are notorious for their ties with white supremacist groups including the far-right UK National Front party and the neo-Nazi terrorist organization Combat 18.
Cases of far-right groups mixing with soccer have not been limited to one particular country.
‘Chelsea Headhunters’, (ultra-violent Far Right football thugs, linked to Combat 18 & the NF back in the day) in Budapest last week, with flag proudly featuring SS ‘Totenkopf’ skull logo. @ChelseaFC & other clubs with fascists in their fanbase need to act decisively. #kickitout pic.twitter.com/hAa4P0LKnX
— Dr Louise Raw (@LouiseRawAuthor) December 18, 2018
In Italy, Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly was subjected to “monkey” chants during a Serie A match against Inter Milan on December 26.
After the game, Italian police revealed that a fan who was killed in a pre-match fight between rival hooligans had been a member of the neo-Nazi gang “Blood and Honor.”
Alberto Testa, a professor of criminology at the University of West London and expert on far-right terrorism, told The Globe Post that the right-wing groups infiltrating soccer games are “highly organized groups, composed of 40-50 people, gym and tattoo enthusiasts, and enjoy posting photos on social media to intimidate opponents.”
“The violence is carefully planned, hence it’s much more difficult to prevent,” Testa added.
Politics and Football
Pavel Klymenko, a member of the anti-discrimination organization Football Against Racism in Europe, believes the Koulibaly incident represents a challenge not just for Italian soccer, but all of Europe.
“When we look at the politics in Italy right now, this scaremongering of refugees and migrants; the rise of the far-right parties in Italy and across Europe; Interior Minister Matteo Salvini introducing regulations against migrants and ethnic minorities in the country – this has an impact on the stadiums,” Klymenko told Al Jazeera.
Salvini, the leader of the far-right Lega party that won 17 percent of the vote during Italy’s general election last March, has closed ports to refugees, tightened asylum laws, and blamed immigrants for spiking crime rates.
Samuel Eto'o believes he has the answer to tackling racism in football. pic.twitter.com/U7GVrevRUh
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 7, 2019
Soccer players with immigrant backgrounds have denounced the recent anti-migrant backlash across the continent.
Earlier this year, Germany’s Mesut Ozil, who is of Turkish origin, announced his retirement from the national team citing “racism” and “right-wing propaganda.”
Reinhard Grindel, the president of the German Football Federation (DFB), had criticized Ozil for posting a picture with Turkish president Recep Erdogan on social media before Germany’s disastrous 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign.
Ozil defended the picture by declaring, “My job is a football player and not a politician, and our meeting was not an endorsement of any policies.”
“In the eyes of Grindel and his supporters, I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Ozil added.
Grindel, a former member of the right-wing Christian Democratic Union party (CDU), said in 2004 that multiculturalism was “a myth and a lifelong lie.”
Some experts have denounced the rhetoric of those like Salvini and Grindel as an incubator for racism.
“Racial nationalism and xenophobia are growing in Europe,” Alegi said.
“These ideologies of hate infiltrate stadiums both through ordinary fans as well as through the many ultra groups sympathetic to right-wing ideologies. In this toxic atmosphere, the flames of racism are stoked.”
In an attempt to quell the backlash, governing bodies such as the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) launched the “No to Racism” campaign, which aims to increase public awareness of discrimination in soccer as well as developing strategies to combat intolerance.
According to UEFA, the organization has revised its disciplinary regulations to be tougher on racism.
“The measures aim to efficiently fight racist behavior at football matches, inline with UEFA’s zero-tolerance policy,” the organization said.
However, Testa believes football clubs and national federations need to do more.
“Football clubs must not have links with these groups and must make it clear that their messages are not acceptable; they need to list symbols which are clearly far-right in nature and give it to their security reps so fans can be identified and banned,” he said.
More on the Subject
The policies of Italy’s anti-immigrant and anti-establishment government which came to power last June have torpedoed the country’s global democracy ranking, a think tank said Wednesday.
The country dropped from 21st to 33rd position in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 Democracy Index, mainly because of the presence of the far-right League in Italy’s coalition.