Racism among soccer fans must stop

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Yet another very public incident of soccer-related racism has the sports world abuzz, discussing what has become a tired refrain—European soccer has a racism problem.

Last week, several Chelsea FC fans, heading to the club’s Champions League round of 16 first leg against Paris Saint-Germain, were videotaped aggressively pushing a black man away from the doors of a Paris metro car, refusing to allow him to board. In the footage, the fans can then be heard chanting, “We’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it!”

Europe’s racism problems exist far outside the realm of sport as well. Soccer just happens to be one of the most publicly consumed types of media in the world, and so it becomes a sounding board for the larger cultural problem of white European racism, commonly aimed at Africans, Muslims and Jews.

Chelsea has promised to crack down on these specific fans, pursuing their identities and punishing those found responsible for this blatantly racist act. But, the club also had to put out a second statement, warning its fans to curb their racism during next Sunday’s game, a matchup with Tottenham Hotspur, a London-based club whose fans have a long tradition of self-identifying with the local Jewish population.

The fact that one of the world’s largest soccer clubs, playing out of a cosmopolitan city, has to consistently warn its fans to not be racist is plainly depressing. But this is hardly a reality unique to Chelsea or English soccer.

Every season, ugly incidents mar the sport, highlighting the pervasive nature of the racism problem. Black players get mocked with monkey sounds and get bananas thrown in their direction on the pitch, clubs with Muslim players and fans receive abuse and Jews frequently endure taunts from anti-semitic and neo-Nazi fans in stadiums across Europe.

With the 2016 European Championship and 2018 World Cup slated for France and Russia respectively, it is not hard to imagine scenarios in which more public incidents of racism could occur, but with the entire world watching. If rampant French Islamophobia appears in the context of a major international match broadcast around the globe, what would be the response? Russian fans have been called out by Zenit St. Petersburg and Brazilian national team star Hulk as being guilty of, in his words, “ignorance and a lack of culture.”

As the world’s game, soccer owes it to itself to self-police racism much more effectively. Recognizing the problem and punishing on a case-by-case basis shows that clubs and FIFA, the sport’s governing body, at least keep up the appearance of caring about rooting out racism.

However, for real deterrence to become a reality, the punishments must become as harsh as possible. Forcing clubs to play in an empty stadium is a tactic that has been deployed by FIFA, and it should become the norm. But, it could and should go even further. Mandating, for example, a television blackout of a club’s match in its local market could be a more immediately effective deterrent. If fans are going to be racist, take their game away from them.