The troubling trend continued on Sunday, just as it did on Saturday, and just as it has far too often this season. It’s a tiresome trend. And a maddening one. Because the reasons for it slap soccer in the face every single week.
Every. Single. Week.
And nobody with the power to address them seems to understand them.
The latest incident, just like so many before it, occurred in Italy. Early in the second half of a Serie A match between Hellas Verona and Brescia, Verona fans hurled abuse at Brescia striker Mario Balotelli. Balotelli, who has been subjected to racism dozens (and likely hundreds) of times throughout his career, snapped as he dribbled toward the corner – and into earshot of the crowd. With the ball still in play, he picked it up and punted it into the stands.
Scenes in Italy. Mario Balotelli, presumably in response to racist abuse from fans, picks up ball and kicks it into stands.
Here's the aftermath.
We - football, society – need teammates/opponents to stop pleading with victims to not walk off, start walking off with them instead pic.twitter.com/wQ6rfs7j0K
— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) November 3, 2019
What happened next is complicated, and unknowable from afar. The referee pulled out his yellow card, but never actually issued it. Players from both teams confronted Balotelli in varying fashions.
Balotelli himself looked like he had had enough. Looked like he wanted to walk off. Teammates and opponents appeared to try to convince him to stay. A few appeared to console him. Those heated pleas turned into tense, serious discussions over a four-minute-plus delay, during which a statement was reportedly read over the stadium’s public address system.
While the PA announcer reportedly condemned the racist chants, neither Balotelli nor any other player left the field during the stoppage.
And therein lies the problem.
Players – the majority of whom were white – wanted the game to go on. The referee wanted the game to go on. Italian soccer authorities presumably wanted the game to go on. Fans surely did.
None of them empathized with Balotelli. If they did, none had the courage to act upon their empathy. It appeared that the purpose of their conversations with him after the incident was to console him and calm him, rather than to stand with him. In doing so, they left him to fight racism alone. They sided with a sport that turns a blind eye to racism instead of siding with a peer who was suffering from it.
That’s what has to change.
Neither Italy nor Europe instantaneously developed a racism problem in recent years. Rather, players have begun exposing it. Talking openly about it. Walking off fields in response to it. Their actions are courageous and meaningful. They should, at some point, affect change.
But they need help. Help from those whose lives aren’t impacted by racism on a daily basis. Help beyond brief suspensions of games. They need allies. They need white players to put their arms around them and walk off fields with them, en masse, rather than convince them to play on.
The Balotellis and Kalidou Koulibalys and Raheem Sterlings of the soccer world deserve to be lauded. Their willingness to fight rather than fall in line, as the white majority wants them to do, is remarkable. It represents progress. But without more support from the majority, it will soon become an illusion of progress.
Because while incidents like Sunday’s continue to make headlines, they don’t provoke meaningful responses. Hellas Verona won the match and picked up three points. They won’t be docked any. Their players will be happy. The club will be happy.
The game will go on, and therefore racism will go on, until Balotelli’s teammates and opponents – and their equivalents around the world – decide it won’t.
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