Refereeing the Players, and Racism


The Italian soccer player Mario Balotelli visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim, Poland on Wednesday.



Published: June 7, 2012

LONDON — One player stood outside the gates of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland where, 70 years ago, the Nazis systematically killed Jews.

He wore an Italian-team tracksuit. He had his hands in his pockets, a stereo headset over his ears and a look in his eyes that communicated sadness and sullenness.

The player, Mario Balotelli, could be the catalyst for the biggest challenge facing the 31-game, 16-nation European Championship that kicks off Friday evening in Warsaw and ends July 1 in Kiev.

Balotelli, born of Ghanaian parents but raised by foster parents in Italy, has said that if he hears insults about the color of his skin, he will walk off the field in the middle of a game. On the eve of the tournament, Michel Platini, once the leading player for France and now president of the governing body of European soccer, UEFA, warned that a player who left the field would be shown the yellow card.

“It’s not a player — Mr. Balotelli — who’s in charge of refereeing,” Platini said. “It’s the referees who takes these decisions.”

UEFA’s line is that the player must approach the match referee, who could then suspend, or even cancel, the game if players were subjected to racial abuse by the crowds.

Europe has come a long way from the concentration camp, but intolerance remains a troubling presence on the sports field. Balotelli’s intent to walk off the field if he is abused might be understandable in a gifted, temperamental young man of 21.

However, it could hardly be more different from the example that Jesse Owens, the African-American athlete, set with silent dignity when he sprinted and jumped to four gold medals at age 22 in front of Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

There is still enough of a player in Platini that his pretournament message to the players was “Make us dream.” Soccer, he has said, is an irrational sport in which the biggest and the best do not always win. So he asked players to make Euro 2012 a great and memorable party.

“We are ready,” the UEFA president said Wednesday. “It has been a long, hard challenge, but I am happy to be here. It was in April 2007 that Poland and Ukraine were awarded the right to stage this Euro. A lot has been done by the governments of Poland and Ukraine, and the UEFA administration, to stage three weeks of euphoria which will leave an important legacy that makes life easier for the people.”

Platini’s message is the dream, but he is cornered by the fear that UEFA has brought the soccer festival to two developing, formerly communist nations, while Europe battles economic problems in seemingly every corner. The hope is that a million tourists, who have never visited Poland or Ukraine, will see enough to make them want to visit again.

The fear is that even if new infrastructures are ready, old, intolerant attitudes toward race may not be. Asked Wednesday about a BBC program that last week broadcast shocking images of white racists beating defenseless Asian students in a stadium in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and images of anti-Semitic abuse at games in Poland, Platini responded: “If you want to have a program on racism, you can go anywhere, because there is an increase in the nationalists in many, many countries. It is not only in Poland and Ukraine. You can go to France, United States, or England and you will find he problem of racism.” Platini acknowledged that he had not seen the BBC program.

Others had, including John Godson, a Nigerian who has taught university students in Poland for nearly 20 years. He told Reuters that the program was “one-sided.” Godson said the documentary had saddened him because it did not reflect his own experience of the progress that Poland has made after decades of repression, first under Nazi Germany, then under the Iron Curtain.

“It’s not that people are racist,” Godson said. “They simply have not been exposed to other cultures.”

A less benign opinion was expressed by Piara Powar, the executive director for Football Against Racism in Europe, an advocacy group that works with other organizations across Europe. Powar joined the news conference at which Platini sounded such optimism Wednesday, but told reporters that F.A.R.E. is more worried about racism at this tournament than any other.

“It is good to know that Mr. Platini understands what is going on,” Powar said. “We have 31 monitors and it is their job not just to look for more obvious racism but also the nuanced issues — the right wing banners, the insignia, the discriminatory chants.” None of that, Powar suggested, is the responsibility of the match referees.

But they are responsible for the players and what goes on on the field.

“I cannot predict the behavior of 70,000 people in the stadium,” Platini insisted. “We cannot stand outside saying ‘You’re racist, you can’t come in — you’re not racist, so you can.”’

One problem is that F.A.R.E.’s mission is to see all racist abuse and report it to the authorities, but those authorities may not be looking for the same thing. In the BBC documentary, stadium stewards stood inert as the Asian students were beaten, and there were no riot police present.

But UEFA will take action if, and only if, racist taunts reach the ears of players, and those players complain to the referee. There are 12 referees for the entire Euro 2012 tournament.

They have just finished long, arduous seasons in their home leagues. There is not one black referee among the dozen chosen.

They are trained lawyers, real estate agents, financial advisers, police officers or, in the case of Jonas Eriksson of Sweden, a shareholder in television and media who can talk to millionaire players as an equal, at least financially.

“All the money hasn’t changed anything,” Eriksson said recently. “The best thing I do in my life us still refereeing football.”

Eriksson, and each of these arbiters, has his own way of coping with the ever-increasing speed of the modern game, of dealing with the requirement for instantaneous judgments on whether a foul was committed or a ball crossed the goal line. They have to do this over 90 minutes, while having to run a total of 10 to 13 kilometers, or 6 to 8 miles, and sprint 50 or more times to keep up with the action.

To these 12 men, UEFA hands the responsibility to call off the game if players are abused by chants from the fans. The responsibility is historic, and awesome.


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