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The Not-So-Beautiful Game

As the World Cup approaches, ugly reminders of the bigotry that plagues European soccer.

11:00 PM, Feb 23, 2006 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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"Night of shame stuns England," read the headline in London's Daily Telegraph. It was November 18, 2004. The previous evening, at Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium, England's national soccer team had lost a friendly to Spain, 1-0. But the "shame" had precious little to do with what transpired on the pitch. It stemmed chiefly from Spanish fans' showering of racial abuse on several of England's black players.

Ashley Cole felt "a blast of bigotry from one corner of the Bernabeu" when he received a yellow card for a dicey tackle, reported Telegraph correspondent Henry Winter. "The racism intensified from then on, disgracefully so, deafeningly so." Specifically, Spanish fans serenaded the black Englishmen with monkey chants. Nor was it simply a tiny rabble of Spanish hooligans doing the grunting. As the BBC's Katya Adler noted, citing a center-left Spanish press account, "the racist chanting came as much from groups of well-heeled young Spanish men in the crowd as from the well-known football thugs labeled the 'Ultras.'"

The painful irony, Winter observed, was that prior to the game "both sides had lined up behind a banner declaring 'all united against racism in football'" while the spectators heard recorded pleas for tolerance from two world-famous black footballers, Frenchmen Thierry Henry and Lilian Thuram. The England-Spain match took place just six weeks after Spain coach Luis Aragones was caught on videotape referring to Henry as "that black shit," in an apparent attempt to motivate his star forward, Jose Antonio Reyes, who plays alongside Henry for the English club Arsenal. And it came just one day after racist jeering by Spanish fans marred an Under-21 soccer match between the two countries.

FIFA, the sport's world governing body, slapped the Spanish Football Federation with a steep fine for the fans' behavior. But these were hardly isolated incidents. The "monkey chant" is now an odious staple of many European soccer games, especially in Spain. "Anybody who's not deaf and regularly attends football matches in southern Europe knows how [the monkey chant] sounds," wrote Ian Hawkey in London's Sunday Times last March. "In Spain, you can catch the grunting noise somewhere every weekend. It rang out long and notoriously loud during England's international in Madrid in November. It echoed through the lower south tier at the same stadium, the celebrated Santiago Bernabeu, when Real Madrid played Bayer Leverkusen the same month."

Hawkey ticked off a few other examples. Last February, Brazilian defender Roberto Carlos, who plays his club ball for Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid, endured monkey chants at Spain's Deportivo La Coruna--"where the referee asked the public address man to tell people to desist." Racist taunts also dogged forward Samuel Eto'o--of Cameroon and Spain's FC Barcelona--at Real Zaragoza. After tallying a goal, Eto'o decided to mock the bigoted hecklers: He mimicked a chimpanzee, tucking his hands under his armpits and cupping his lips in an "O" shape while mouthing grunts of his own. Costa Rican forward Paulo Wanchope went a step further. When a few fans of his own club team, Spain's Malaga FC, began hurling racist blather at Wanchope following a league match against Real Betis, he raced into the stands to confront them--and wound up getting in a scuffle, before his teammates intervened.

In late 2004, on the heels of the England-Spain fiasco, BBC Sport investigated the pervasiveness of racism in Spanish soccer. The results weren't encouraging. Carlos Ferreyra Nunez, one of Spain's leading anti-racism campaigners, told the BBC that overtly racist soccer fans could be found "every week and all over the country." Such bigotry was "a cancer," he said, "that has touched every aspect of football." Excising the cancer has proved difficult. Earlier this month, Real Zaragoza was once again fined by the Spanish Football Federation after some of its supporters unleashed racist taunts against a Brazilian forward on Real Betis. "During the latter stages of the game," wrote referee Carlos Velasco Carballo in his match report, "monkey chants were directed at Betis player Robert whenever he touched the ball."

This latest news comes courtesy of the invaluable "Kick It Out" project, a London-based anti-racism movement. Founded in 1993, it seeks to promote tolerance in British and European soccer. "We are one of the leading members of the 'Football Against Racism in Europe' network," says Leon Mann, the group's spokesman. "Our objective is to challenge racism at all levels of the game." Mann stresses that "football bigotry" isn't unique to Spain. Sadly, it is endemic throughout southern, central, and eastern Europe.