European soccer’s fight against racism not yet won

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PARIS (AP) - For fans of soccer, Feb. 1 promises to be a sad day.

John Terry, one of the most rugged, fearsome and admired defenders anywhere in the world, a natural leader who captains his club, Chelsea, and his country, England, will appear at a London courthouse to face a criminal charge that he abused a black colleague with a torrent of vile, racially insulting language.

Terry insists the whole affair is a misunderstanding. Born and raised in the ethnic melting pot of east London, he has played with or alongside black players all of his sporting life. Yet video from an Oct. 23 Premier League match appeared to show him shouting, “You ––- black –-” at Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand, whose brother, Rio, has long been Terry’s partner in the England defense.

Terry was quick to issue a statement: “People have leapt to the wrong conclusions about the context of what I was seen to be saying.” He vowed to “fight tooth and nail to prove my innocence” at the West London Magistrates’ Court.

Still, this and other incidents in England and elsewhere in Europe are raising questions about whether efforts to stamp out racist behavior in the world’s No. 1 sport have taken a big step backward after having made so many strides forward in the past decade or more. Have racist fans and players simply been lurking, unrepentant, under the surface, instead of being hounded out? Have soccer authorities, led by world governing body FIFA and its European cousin, UEFA, eased up too early in their often-stated determination to rid the global sport of all forms of discrimination?

“We were winning,” said Steve Rotheram, a British lawmaker who successfully lobbied for a parliamentary committee to take a new look at racism in sports, following the Terry case and others. However, “people have started to ask about institutional racism and, you know, whether or not the sort of improvements that we’d all hoped have happened over the past 20 years are actually embedded.”

The inquiry will start gathering evidence in March. “We’ve got to be ever vigilant, to make certain that racism doesn’t make a comeback,” Rotheram said in a phone interview.

Some countries fight soccer extremists with greater determination than others. Some believe the only effective way to punish and ostracize extremist fans is by punishing their clubs. For others, a long-term solution is to educate fans so they police themselves and no longer tolerate bigots in their midst.

“One of the reasons why the UK and Germany, I would say, have been so successful in tackling this problem is through the peer pressure that was exerted toward those fans who were being racist _ when people used the logic of ‘Well, how can you abuse the opposition black player when we have black players of our own?’” said Piara Powar, executive director of the FARE network, European soccer’s anti-discrimination group, partly funded by UEFA.

“When that became the dominant feeling on the terraces and in the stands that was the start of a dynamic, which, in footballing terms, one couldn’t challenge,” he said in a phone interview. “It was nonsensical to abuse black players because they were also your own black players.”

Nir Inbar, CEO of Israeli first division team Hapoel Tel Aviv, is a proponent of punishment. At a Dec. 28 game, Beitar Jerusalem fans racially abused his Nigerian-born striker, Toto Tamuz.

“They were singing, ‘Give Toto a banana,’” Inbar, who was at the game, said in a phone interview. “It is horrible to have racism in a country (where) most of its citizens are Jews. It shouldn’t be here. Racism is in our dark history. We suffered a lot from racism.”

Rather than merely fine Beitar, Israel’s Football Association docked two points from the six-time champion, a significant punishment for a club in danger this season of relegation from the top division.

“That’s what needs to happen to tackle racism. That is how supporters understand the lessons, you know?” Inbar said. “Because they did not learn the lesson when the club is getting fined, they say, ‘OK, the club has enough money.’”

“If it was up to me, yes, I would use this punishment more often.”

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