Belgian soccer tackles insults step by step
BRUSSELS – The referee heard the insulting chants toward French-speaking Walloons cascading from the stands, and he had enough.
The Belgian league soccer game pitted Racing Genk of Dutch-speaking Flanders against Standard Liege, the biggest club in Wallonia. The Flemish fans started hurling scatological insults in French at rival fans, prompting referee Jerome N'Zolo to stop the game.
A few weeks earlier, a game between Lierse and Beerschot was suspended when fans taunted Lierse's Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima with cries of "Fukushima, Fukushima" — referring to the disaster at the nuclear power plant following the tsunami and earthquake in March.
After years of working to contain hooliganism, authorities now want to do more to crack down on racial insults and crude taunts that rain down from the stands during games through much of Europe.
Despite goodwill ambassadors, a charter for equality and uplifting banners, officials realize more needs to be done. It took many years to push hooliganism to the fringes, and this may be a similar scenario. On Monday, Belgian government and soccer officials launched Respect United.
"We won't eradicate this by tomorrow, but if we reduce it bit by bit, that's already something," N'Zolo said.
For the government, the goal is clear.
"I want to reach a situation where we can go to a match just like we go to the theater," Belgian Interior Minister Annemie Turtelboom said. "If I take my two daughter to a game, I want to be sure that other people, or language groups, or your mother, are not insulted at will."
Next month, the Football Against Racism in Europe group plans a two-week campaign throughout the continent, seeking to highlight the seriousness of the issue ahead of the 2012 European Championship in Poland and Ukraine. Two anti-racism groups investigated an 18-month period from September 2009 to March 2011 in the two nations and found 195 individual incidents.
Last year, European soccer's ruling body fined Macedonian club Rabotnicki $12,700 after its fans aimed racist abuse at Liverpool's black players during a Europa League match.
Two years earlier, UEFA ruled that Atletico Madrid had to play a Champions League match in an empty stadium because of racist behavior by its fans against French club Marseille. Also in 2008, FIFA fined the Croatia Football Federation $33,200 after fans directed racist chants at an England player during a World Cup qualifier.
Racism in sports goes beyond Europe, too. Last Thursday, a banana was thrown from the crowd in London, Ontario, as Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds, who is black, was skating toward the Detroit goal during a shootout. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called it "stupid and ignorant."
Such taunts have happened all over Europe for decades.
N'Zolo, who is black, remembers when he refereed a lower division game and heard someone shout at him to "go back to Congo," referring to Belgium's former African colony. He smiled, sought out the fan afterward and explained that his ancestry was actually in Gabon, about 500 miles from Congo.
So when the Genk fans shouted "Les Wallons, c'est du caca," likening Walloons to excrement, N'Zolo followed regulations and sent everybody off the field. After an interruption of about 10 minutes, the players came back.
"I achieved my goal because the insults stopped," N'Zolo said.
When the Belgian federation fined Genk $805, Turtelboom was not happy.
"That, in fact, is peanuts," she said.
Turtelboom said the government asked for video evidence and hopes to identify individuals responsible and ban them for at least three months.
Beyond racism and xenophobia, many fans insist on just being hateful.
Last week, Belgian league club Beerschot apologized to Kawashima and the Japanese embassy after some of its fans taunted the goalkeeper with "Fukushima" chants. The referee interrupted the match until the taunts stopped. When the player went to confront the fans where the taunting started he was pelted with coins and beer.
"The Fukushima incident really gave our game a bad image," Turtelboom said.
It is hardly an isolated case.
At a Manchester United-Leeds League Cup match in England last week, United fans chanted "Istanbul" in reference to two Leeds fans stabbed to death there. Leeds fans retorted, chanting "Munich" in reference to the 1958 plane crash in Germany in which the core of United's team died.
"It is off the scale," FARE executive director Piara Powar said in a telephone interview.
He said that even if clear-cut racism may be declining slightly, it is quickly replaced by general insults that may hide the same sympathies.
"It is this mindset we need to overcome," Powar said.
Heavy fines may help, but Turtelboom, the Belgian minister, was looking abroad for inspiration.
Turkey came up with a radical solution for unruly behavior — ban the men and let only women and children in. Last week, more than 41,000 women and children filled the Fenerbahce stadium to watch Istanbul draw 1-1 with Manisapor.
Said Manisaspor midfielder Omer Aysan: "It was such a fun and pleasant atmosphere."