Race, soccer and the World Cup
International soccer has been plagued for years by violence among fans, including racial incidents. But FIFA, soccer's Zurich-based world governing body, said there has been a recent surge in discriminatory behavior toward blacks by fans and other players, an escalation that has dovetailed with the signing of more players from Africa and Latin America by elite European clubs.
This "deplorable trend," as FIFA has called it, now threatens to embarrass the sport on its grandest stage, the World Cup, which opens June 9 for a monthlong run in 12 cities around Germany. More than 30 billion cumulative television viewers are expected to watch part of the competition and Joseph S. Blatter, FIFA's president, has vowed to crack down on racist behavior during the tournament.
Underlining FIFA's concerns, the issue has been included on the agenda at its biannual Congress, scheduled to be held this week in Munich. A campaign against bigotry includes "Say No to Racism" stadium banners, television commercials, and team captains making pregame speeches during the quarterfinals of the 32-team tournament.
Players, coaches and officials have been threatened with sanctions. But FIFA has said it would not be practical to use the harshest penalties available to punish misbehaving fans — halting matches, holding games in empty stadiums and deducting points that teams receive for victories and ties.
Players and antiracism experts said they expected offensive behavior during the tournament, including monkey-like chanting; derisive singing; the hanging of banners that reflect neofascist and racist beliefs; and perhaps the tossing of bananas or banana peels, all familiar occurrences during matches in Spain, Italy, eastern Germany and eastern Europe.
"For us it's quite clear this is a reflection of underlying tensions that exist in European societies," said Piara Powar, director of the London-based antiracist soccer organization Kick It Out. He said of Eastern Europe: "Poverty, unemployment, is a problem. Indigenous people are looking for easy answers to blame. Often newcomers bear the brunt of the blame."
Yet experts and players also said they believed the racist behavior would be more constrained at the World Cup than it was during play in various domestic leagues around Europe, because of increased security, the international makeup of the crowds, higher ticket prices and a sense that spectators would be generally well behaved on soccer's grandest stage.
"We have to differentiate inside and outside the stadium," said Kurt Wachter, project coordinator for the Vienna-based Football Against Racism in Europe, a network of organizations that seeks to fight bigotry and xenophobia in 35 countries.
"Racism is a feature of many football leagues inside and outside Europe," said Wachter, who expects most problems to occur outside stadiums where crowds are less controlled. "We're sure we will see some things we're used to seeing. It won't stop because of the World Cup."
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