This week, in a meaningless friendly match aimed at keeping players fit during the winter break, AC Milan were led off the pitch by Kevin Prince Boateng, who claimed he was being subjected to racist abuse from sections of third division Pro Patria’s fans.
Is walking off the field in the newest demonstration of player power the best way to rid stadiums of this scourge once and for all?
Does the departure from the pitch empower or demonize those who are culpable? Does walking off the pitch give the abuser a kind of twisted victory, or does it call out their hypocrisy that they do actually want to watch the best players play, regardless of their ethnicity?
Former AC Milan player Clarence Seedorf has questioned whether this is the best way to deal with racism, “Walking away? Yes, you send a signal. But this has happened more than once and I don't think it really changes all that much. We are just empowering that little group with their behavior to make this mess."
But AC Milan owner, and former Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi released a statement praising the conduct of his players. “I am very happy with Milan's reaction and be assured that in all games where we experience episodes of this kind, Milan will leave the field.”
As yet, there has been no word from either UEFA or FIFA in regard to the matter, which is unsurprising given their past history of passivity on matters of racism. But if this were to happen again, where is the line of acceptability? Walking out of a friendly against some lower-league team is one thing, but what about in a Champions League game or, as Mario Balotelli threatened to do, during an international tournament?
If a player or team stops a game by walking off the field, who determines whether they had a legitimate grievance? Can a player walk off and halt the game anytime he is uncomfortable about anything or does it have to be “FIFA-approved abuse,” so to speak?
Technically, only the referee has the power to delay or cancel a game, but will asking them to police the terraces, as well as the pitch, place an unmanageable burden upon already over-scrutinized officials?
The previous tactic of stoically continuing to play your football before reporting incidents to the authorities appears to have failed. Players clearly feel let down by the pitiful fines handed out by UEFA, which do nothing to deter fans or clubs from engaging in deeply ignorant, but often deep-rooted ideas and behaviors.
It shouldn't be forgotten that the debate about racism in sport is often framed in terms of treatment of black players, but anti-Semitism has proved equally difficult to eradicate.
There was a big push in the '80s and '90s to marginalize racism at football ground, but that is where it has remained, festering in the shadows while the authorities rested upon the laurels. There has been no escaping the issue of the past 12 months, with incidents involving Serbia, Luis Suarez, England captain John Terry and fans of Zenit St. Petersburg all making headlines.
With racism proving such a torrid issue, what chance does football have of tackling its last taboo—homophobia? This is not merely a football issue; it is in almost every major sport. The last openly gay footballer was Justin Fashanu, who “came out” in 1991 and committed suicide seven years later.
AC Milan have apologized to those fans who did not engage in the chants which caused Boateng to leave the field, and have said they will return to replay the game at a later date, while the player himself told CNN he is prepared to walk off again regardless of the match situation, and is now considering his future in Italy.
Now that a precedent has been set, there needs to be a serious conversation about how to finally kick racism out of football, and sports in general, before another player is placed in the position where they feel they even have to consider leaving the field because of abuse of any kind.
We talk of football as a universal language. It is time this language became universally welcoming.
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