What does football say about the enduring power of racism in Europe?
Dr Yakoob Ahmed
Racism in football is a reflection of a wider problem in European society of institutional racism and discrimination. Can Europe evolve and become accepting or will it retreat in fear at the confidence displayed by immigrants. It wouldn’t be an understatement that to many, especially in Europe, football is not just a game, but also a marker of identity, tradition, and loyalty and in many cases it is the supporter’s opium, their religion. In the secular nations of Europe there is nothing like the expressions of tribalism and religiosity seen on the terraces of a football match. It is often said in Europe that religion and politics should not mix, but on closer examination football has always been political.
International football in particular has probably been the most successful soft-power tool to generate nationalistic emotions and appropriate national identity, especially for European nation-states. The World Cup historically has continually provided a platform where sport, nationalism and loyalty are expressed in the stadiums to the streets, bars and pubs of countries worldwide.
Due to the success of the globalised franchise of the Champions league, interest in the national game has been in decline. It was hoped that in footballing terms the international game could change this perception in this year’s tournament and on the field it did, with the tournament being a great success. However, European commentators expressed a sign of caution that with this year’s World Cup being held in Russia, it could potentially expose international fans to racism. There is no doubting that the perception of racism in Russia is high, but nations with glass houses should be careful of throwing stones.
There was indeed racism at this World Cup, but not from the Russians, it was in fact from the media and fans of European nations towards their own players of migrant backgrounds. Germany’s shocking early exit as the defending champions and self proclaimed ‘rainbow nation’ of the last World Cup hurt national pride to such an extent that fingers were pointed towards their two players of Turkish descent. Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil and Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan’s visit to the President of Turkey during his state visit to the UK was seen as an act of betrayal and disloyalty by the German press and some segments of German society. Such was the furore created in the name of democracy and German values, free reign seemed to be sanctioned to subject the players to a visceral attack as punishment to put them in their place.
It would be no understatement that the abuse was disgraceful with what could only have felt like further humiliation when the German FA and government demanded chastening apologies from the two footballers. The response was Ozil’s retirement from the German national team, citing racism and disrespect.
Some may choose to blame Ozil’s political choices, but what one cannot do is deny his feelings, his emotions, his right to protest at the treatment he has faced. Irrespective of what Ozil or any other player for that fact choose to believe, irrespective of how Ozil or any player have played, it doesn’t legislate the way they were treated nor invalidate it. I would ask, that as a World Cup winner, a servant to the German national team and nation, did Ozil not deserve that protection and support from his employer?
It will come as no surprise that the German FA have rejected Ozil’s charge of racism, instead pointing the finger at the victim, which is frankly scandalous. This is where the problem lies in Europe. Some would have you believe that there isn’t a racism problem in Europe nor in football –unless if it is from the far-right. Ozil’s grievance is not only the racism he received from some segments of German society, but the manner in which he was hung out to dry by the establishment.
This may come as a surprise to many people in Europe but ethnic minorities will tell you racism comes in many forms. Racism in Europe is ingrained in many spectrums of European life, and football and racism, especially the national game, have a long history in every aspect of the game from the stands to the media and the sports governing bodies. Racism is part of life for ethnic minorities, let us not assume that football is any different.
Racism was not simply a German issue. Jimmy Durmaz of Assyrian Turkish background representing Sweden faced death threats from his own fans for giving away a last minute free kick against the Germans, of which Germany scored.
Unlike Ozil however, the Swedish players and FA backed Durmaz in which Durmaz made a public appeal of his loyalty and love to being Swedish.
Should he have had to profess his love for the game and his country? What had Durmaz done to suggest his disloyalty to the progressive nation of Sweden? It’s worth asking Sweden’s most successful footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic how much racism he faced when he accused the Swedish press of double standards.
European national identity was built on racism, and it simply does not want to admit it. Ethnic minorities across Europe have raced to defend Ozil. That should suggest that the Ozil affair is far bigger than him taking a picture with the Turkish President, and that this is more than football, this is everyday life.
Doing the rounds on social media have been quotes by Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku, and Real Madrid striker Kerim Benzima who like Ibrahimovic and Ozil have made claims of racism and double standards.The French are now the new champions and they too have not escaped this charge. French Ambassador to the USA Gerard Araud took exception to South African comedian and TV host, Trevor Noah, of the popular American television programme ‘The Daily Show’ who dared to suggest that the French victory was also a victory for Africa.
Araud’s response was to point out that France does not have ‘hyphenated identities’ – just the French one. What Araud fails or chooses not to understand is that ethnic minorities have multiple-identities, multiple-cultures, multiple-loyalties and traditions that are not rigidly attached to strict Western-European national ones. They cannot simply wish them away. A case in point is when Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri celebrated by scoring for Switzerland by highlighting their Albanian identities, FIFA simply didn’t know how to respond. Multiple-identities have not been to the detriment of European nations-states but instead are reflective of transformation for the positive.
But it seems that those who subscribe to one identity in Europe cannot understand this, nor those that are in positions of power, be it governments, the media or football’s governing bodies.
While many European nation-states proclaim an environment of equality and that ‘Whiteness’ is not the definition of being European, for ethnic minorities and Muslims “Whiteness’ however is the standard of which they are judged.
For ethnic minorities, the problem they face is their loyalty is continuously brought into question because they don’t look, speak, or act in a particular way.
As ethnic minorities when one is asked if they are proud to be say, British, German or French, what they are really being asked is if they are grateful. It is this question which comes from a position of power and superiority across all spectrums of European life. It is for this reason that Trevor Noah cited that France’s proclamation of diversity was actually an imposition of France’s colonialism, still exercised on people of colour.
The identities of the European nation-states are going through some testing challenges but not due to migration, but rather due to the unwillingness to evolve. While there seems to be a contestation between the far-right and the left regarding respective nation-state identities, what they both have in common is the subjugation of the ethnic minority and Muslim as the internal other.
European-nations need to recognise that ethnic minorities and Muslims are now here to stay, and that they are a part of the fabric of Europe and that listening to how ethnic minorities identify as being French, British or German would be a start rather than telling them how they should identify.
In the UK there has been an attempt to ‘stamp racism out of football’. However that is easier said than done, when racism and football have such a connected history. Racism is not simply a football problem however; it is a societal problem, a political problem, a structural problem and a European one, emanating from the notion of national identity itself. While other nations are not perfect, they do not profess to be standard bearers of such ideals. It is for this reason that the expectations for European nations are greater.