Whether we prefer Jose Mourinho’s tactics or Pep Guardiola’s style of play, whether we fall for the words of Pitso Mosimane or Steve Komphela, whether we follow football at a professional level or in the dusty streets of a village, we all love the beautiful game. And today I’m writing to you because there is something that is hanging like a dark shadow over our beloved sport – RACISM!
Racism in football comes in different forms and facets, but unfortunately, we are still facing it too often. Every other week an incident of racism is being reported in mainstream media, and remember these incidents that we do hear about are only the tip of the iceberg. Whether it’s Juventus midfielder Blaise Matuidi being a victim of racial abuse in Serie A in early January or Mario Balotelli in France just this past weekend, every now and then there is outrage, there are calls for changes, but nothing ever changes. What makes it worse is the match officials, like in the case of Balotelli – the former Manchester City and Liverpool striker was booked by the referee for making the official aware of racist chants against him – or football clubs and even federations fail to do their bit in the fight against racism.
One of the cases close to my heart is currently happening in Germany’s fourth tier at a club called SV Babelsberg 03. By coincidence, it’s the club where yours truly learned to kick a ball while growing up in Germany. My club reached its peak when they got promoted to Germany’s 2. Bundesliga in 2001. But unfortunately, they were immediately relegated after just one season. Ever since the rollercoaster ride has seen Babelsberg go up and down between the third and fourth tier, and even bankruptcy in 2003 could not stop the club from leaving its small footprint on German football. However, Babelsberg 03 has not achieved as much attention before as it has in recent weeks when fan groups from all over Germany, most notably Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, as well as even from outside the country by FC United of Manchester (England) and Real Betis (Spain) started supporting the case of my hometown club against racism. But what had happened?
Back in April 2017, Babelsberg faced former Bundesliga side Energie Cottbus. Both clubs are located in Brandenburg, in the eastern part of Germany and their fan groups are known to be of opposing political mentalities. While Babelsberg fans are known for being left-wing, some Cottbus groups associate themselves with the far-right. During the game in Babelsberg, some Cottbus fans were shouting neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic chants and made Adolf Hitler salutes, to which some of the home crowd (rightfully) responded with “Nazis out!” chants.
Subsequently, the local football association, the North Eastern Football Federation (NOFV), summoned both clubs for a hearing. And here is where this case of racism gets mindboggling. The NOFV fined Babelsberg 03, the home team, whose fans had called for “Nazis out”, to the tune of €7000 (R103 000), while Cottbus were fined €10 000 (R148 000) for the use of pyrotechnics inside the stadium. Not a single word was said about the racist chants, which caused the reaction of the home fans in the first place. Only later the NOFV realised they should address the racism part as well and fined Cottbus an additional €5000 (R74 000). However, Cottbus appealed and the second fine was lifted because the anti-Semitic chants were known at the time of the first judgment. Just to be clear, the home team got fined for “Nazis out” chants, while the away team, whose fans made racist calls leading to the reaction of the home crowd, were let off the hook. Babelsberg subsequently refused to pay their fine and the NOFV are now threatening to revoke the club’s league license or ban them from playing until the fine is paid, which would also end up in relegation. This is racism at an institutional level and it has left many football fans in Germany baffled.
Babelsberg have insisted they will not pay the fine and started a massive anti-racism campaign in Germany, selling merchandise with the text “Nazis out of football stadiums” to raise funds for even smaller clubs that also experience racism. Babelsberg have asked for Bundesliga clubs to arrange a friendly match to raise even more awareness for their case, but it remains to be seen whether any of them will agree. You can follow @ftamsut on twitter for updates about the case. So long, keep on fighting racism SV Babelsberg 03, I have never been prouder of being associated with my club! It may just sound like a story of a small club against its FA – David vs. Goliath – but it’s so much more than that.
One last thing: What bothers me the most about racism is that FIFA disbanded its anti-racism task force, which had South African Tokyo Sexwale as a member, in 2016. The task force was established by former FIFA president Sepp Blatter but got dissolved under new president Gianni Infantino in 2016 after just three meetings in around three years. FIFA reasoned that “All of the task force’s recommendations have been implemented and all resulting projects are ongoing.” Such as a surprise came this decision by football’s world governing body that even Yaya Toure expressed his disbelief. “So my question is, after failing to deal with racism for decades are FIFA complacent ahead of a World Cup in Russia? This makes no sense,” he said in a statement released on his website.
FIFA, football associations, clubs, referees, players and fans should all do more to fight racism because it has to stop casting a dark shadow over our beautiful game.