The Ugly Side of Sports

It appears that racism will not be a thing of the past. Racism is a dreadful issue. The belief that someone is lesser because of their skin color, language, customs, or any other factors revealing the basic nature of a person, is a difficult belief to grasp. Sports are recognized as a medium that exceeds these factors. From an athlete’s perspective, their goal is to achieve their athletic potential while competing with others who share the same skills and passions. This profession is solely based on one’s physical capabilities. Yet, there are still certain beliefs and prejudices that continue to infringe on both professional athletes and the sport itself.

Europe has always been a soccer powerhouse and is widely known as the center of world soccer. Most of the world’s largest soccer clubs belong to Europe, attracting the best players from all parts of the globe with their large sums of cash, beautiful stadiums, and passionate fans. With fan bases in the tens and even hundreds of millions for some European clubs, it is easy to see why players from all over dream of playing in such a prosperous football environment. In recent years, however, it is the fans themselves that have driven certain players away from Europe, as specific countries and their people have become growingly unaccepting of ‘non-white’ players.

Racism has made its mark in sports history, dating back to track star Jesse Owens and baseball player Jackie Robinson when sports were regularly segregated in the early 18th century. Nevertheless, it is alarming to still be hearing about racist incidents that are occurring on the field, court, or ice. In Europe, there have been continuous incidents involving racist chants, slurs, and objects that have affected the sport of soccer itself. These denigratory actions have caused players to walk off, games to be canceled, and has even put the 2018 World Cup in jeopardy. “What is being done about it?” one asks. Well, that is where the problem starts, as soccer clubs and global organizations have been accused of looking the other way and ultimately allowing these incidents to occur. Germany, more specifically, is dealing with extreme cases of xenophobia, as police, players, and soccer organizations have begun battling with soccer fans who express their neo-nazi ideologies. Neo-nazism has always lingered in Germany, however, its sudden outburst in the German soccer world can be linked to neo-Nazi recruiting tactics that can now be found in the stands of soccer matches, as German soccer hooligans become more and more involved in neo-Nazism. Lastly, neo-Nazism has been able to further connect with German soccer fans through a common fear and hatred towards ISIS, using the recent terrorist attack on the France vs. Germany soccer game as a powerful example. Without German soccer fans, neo-Nazism in Germany would not be what it is today, an almost mainstream ideology that has attracted the interest of thousands of soccer hooligans, and can be found on a weekly basis either in the streets of Germany or in the fan section of a soccer match.

Racism in European Soccer

Racism has undoubtedly been a stain on soccer’s reputation. Acts of soccer disorder, especially on the international scene, have often been referred to as racist,  and some clubs are now  viewed as having intrinsically racist supporters. A resurgence of racist activities in the recent years has prompted Europe’s soccer authorities to launch a renewed attempt to rid the game of discrimination for good. Soccer supporters in Spain, Italy, and Germany have been the most recent countries to demonstrate their dark pasts through derisive chants, signs, and flying objects. And although soccer organizations like FIFA (International Federation of Association Football), have attempted to step in over the past few years, it appears that fighting racism in soccer is a lost cause. Soccer stars like Mario Balotelli, Didier Drogba, and Dani Alves have recently had discriminatory objects thrown at them while playing, for example, bananas. After a banana was thrown at Dani Alves during a match, he was quoted saying in a brief interview, “To me, sadly, the fight against racism is a lost cause and until more dramatic measures are taken it will continue to exist…I have been in Spain for 10 years and since the first year these things have happened” (Garsd 1).

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Members of Hansa Rostock pick up bananas which fans have thrown on the pitch during a game between FC Hansa Rostock and FC St. Pauli at DKB Arena in Rostock, Germany.

The more recent occurrences of racist behavior around Europe can be linked to the increase in black players, and a decrease of ‘non-white’ fans. Currently in the English Premier League, a survey showed that only 1% of their fans consider themselves ‘non-white’, while  the percentage of black players in the league is at their highest, at 25% (Garsd 1). With racism suddenly on the rise, new FIFA president Gianni Infantino has become concerned with the 2018 World Cup Hosts, Russia, after the findings of a recent study regarding racism in their country. The report, by the Fare network and SOVA Center, found that more than 200 incidents of discrimination in Russian soccer had occurred between 2012 and 2014 (Fare Network 8). Both organizations conduct research and studies based in European racism. To make matters worse, this is not the first time a FIFA president has addressed racism in Russian soccer. In 2014, former president Sepp Blatter asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to address the problem immediately. The country with the most severe instances of racism, however, is Germany, as they struggle to quiet their neo-nazi groups that have caused large reasons for concern.

neo-Nazi’s Use Soccer to Preach in Germany

Germany has the worst reputation in Europe for far-right influence amongst its fans, with continual displays of Hitler salutes, specifically at international matches. The reports of right-wing activity in Germany have been disturbing. It can be dated back to 1990 when there were reports of skinheads jeering the few black players in the Bundesliga, and in 1992 similar reports were made of neo-nazi groups in Germany using soccer games as occasions to plan and organize attacks against local ethnic communities and East European refugees. An analysis of the political attitudes of German fans revealed that 20% feel close to neo-nazis (Spiegel 1). In January of 2016, outside of a local soccer stadium, the streets of Cologne, Germany filled as both neo-Nazi’s and soccer hooligans clashed with police in the street, causing a riot. The riot contained over 5,000 demonstrators, soccer fans, and right-wing extremists who were clearly looking for trouble. By the time the march had concluded, there was a flipped police car, plenty of damages, robberies, and 49 injured police officers. By increasing their attendance of soccer matches and obtaining jobs within soccer stadiums, neo-Nazi’s are able to gain the support of rowdy soccer fans in Germany. These tactics help expose their ideologies to a lot of people while also having neo-nazi security guards who look the other way. This ultimately forms an alliance between neo-Nazis and football hooligans, helping their radical beliefs become more accepted in German society.

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Soccer hooligans and neo-Nazis celebrate in the streets after the Cologne riot in Cologne, Germany

Concerns as to what will come next have echoed around Germany, as the Cologne riot has influenced other neo-nazis to carry out similar demonstrations in the streets of Germany. It has become evident that thousands of soccer hooligans have joined with neo-nazis and other racists, this was an alliance that was originally thought to be impossible. One example of the increasing alliance between both groups is FC Ostelbien Dornburg, a soccer team that has just been removed from their local soccer league. This team has become an infamous one in Germany over the years, solely because of their far-right members who have become renowned for their neo-nazi uniforms and their violent tendencies with opposing players and referees. The soccer club represents about 270 inhabitants in a small town named Gommern, with 15 of its 18 members recognized by the state as Neo-nazis (Knight 2). The connection between German soccer and xenophobia is clearly becoming more and more evident.

Soccer Hooligans and ISIS

Even before the terrorist attacks in both Brussels and Paris, neo-Nazi’s were also able to gain supporters through a common enemy, ISIS. This shared hatred for ISIS caused soccer hooligans to leave their beloved soccer clubs behind and unite for the presumed danger of Islam. The resurgence of nazism was initially not taken serious enough by major German soccer clubs like Borussia Dortmund, as they claimed they knew little on the subjects despite their weekly street fights and in-stadium racism. It wasn’t until two Borussia Dortmund employees were found beating up opposing fans in the bathroom stalls yelling, “Dortmund will stay right wing!”, that the soccer team finally spoke out against neo-nazism, as they immediately began to promote anti-racism campaigns, however, it was already too late.

Juventus' players celebrate their 1-0 win, at the end of a Serie A soccer match between Juventus and AC Milan at the Juventus Stadium in Turin, Italy, Sunday, April 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Italian soccer club Juventus has been fined $39,000 for their fans racist chants in April of 2013.

After soccer hooligans found out that ISIS was responsible for the bombing of the France – Germany soccer game, the neo-Nazis gained an even larger surge of support, as well as the ISIS attacks in a Brussels airport and concert in Paris that followed shortly after. Those who were once soccer fanatics are now preparing for battle against ISIS, as neo-Nazis went straight to social media after the Brussels attack, boasting, “Fuck ISIS, we are not the trouble makers” (Drury 1). And created a page on Facebook that planned to march into nearby Muslim neighborhoods and retaliate. What was once a friendly soccer match, where players competed with one another for physical prowess and success, is now being seen as an opportunity to gain neo-Nazi supporters and ISIS combatants.

Sympathy for neo-Nazism

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Casual neo-Nazi rallies become increasingly popular in the streets of Germany.

Sympathy for neo-Nazi beliefs is also on the rise, although neo-Nazism remains a radical political movement in Germany. To the concerns of many, however, officials and left-wing supporters feel that neo-Nazi violence and attacks are becoming a part of the mainstream in Germany. Citizens must be reminded that neo-Nazism’s message is xenophobia and hate, which is finding an increasingly responsive audience among neutral Germans. Members who often attend their organized riots regularly use symbols from the Third Reich and cherish the work of Hitler during the Holocaust. What was most concerning was the fact that more and more Germans can be seen attending these events, some even with children. It is if these radical ideologies have become accepted and considered a norm in their society. Plus, the growing concerns and strict firearm laws in Germany leave many feeling vulnerable and restrained, searching for a group to join that can protect them.

Neo-Nazism: An End in Sight?

Germany’s highest court is weighing the ban of the neo-Nazi party as we speak, nearly a decade after the failed first attempt. The case presented to the Federal Constitutional Court argues that the far-right, along with the anti-immigrant National Democratic Party (NDP), is a large threat to Germany’s democratic state. The previous attempt to ban the NPD occurred in 2003, but the presence of undercover state informants made their evidence appear to be obscure and unclear. The xenophobic party has never surpassed the 5% barrier during national elections for entry into national parliament, despite their increased support over the past few years. Critics, though, argue that silencing the party will simply force the right-wing extremists to push the issue underground, where it could become increasingly dangerous. Rather than banning the party, the supporters should be educated and more active, and can diversify in different communities and organizations around Germany.   

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Professional soccer player, Giorgios Katidis receives lifetime ban from international play after ‘Heil Hitler’ celebration.

As the majority of Europe slowly quiets the racial slurs and chants that were commonly found within the soccer stadium, Germany continues to battle with their citizens as racist organizations increase their support and strengthen their connections with the German soccer community. The failure for German soccer clubs and associations to publicly recognize their fans derogatory actions has lead to an outburst in xenophobia and neo-Nazism. Soccer hooligans have been targeted by neo-Nazis, using the fan section of soccer games to preach their ideologies on race and ethics. To many Germans, these radical views are becoming less and less radical due to the neo-Nazis frequent rallies and attacks that are becoming a part of the mainstream in Germany. Racism is still alive in soccer today, and unfortunately, it appears it is far from leaving.

 


Works Cited

“Germany Attempts to Ban Neo-Nazi Party amid Fears over Rising Racist Attacks.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 01 Mar. 2016. Web. 11 May 2016.

Garsd, Jasmine. “Is Fighting Racism In Soccer ‘A Lost Cause’? FIFA President Says No.” NPR. NPR, 04 Mar. 2015. Web. 11 May 2016.

“Racism and Football Fans.” Football Violence in Europe. Social Issues Resource Center, 11 May 2016. Web. 11 May 2016.

“Time for Action, Incidents of Discrimination in Russian Football” Fare Network. SOVA Center for Information and Analysis and the Fare Network, 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 May 2016.

Spiegel, Der. “Germany’s New Right: The Unholy Alliance of Neo-Nazis and Football Hooligans” Spiegel Online. Spiegel Online, 04 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 May 2016.

Knight, Ben. “Neo-Nazi Football Team Ostelbien to Be Kicked out of Local League” DW.COM. Deutsche Welle, 13 Aug. 2015. Web. 11 May 2016.

Drury, Flora. “‘F*** ISIS, We Are Not the Troublemakers’: Neo-Nazis Gloat about Violent Brussels March on Facebook and Claim They Will Now Target ‘Jihadi Neighbourhood’ Where Muslims Also Live.” Daily Mail. Associated Newspapers, 30 Mar. 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.

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