The Beautiful Shame

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: August 12, 2007

STUTTGART, GERMANY — The Hallschlag district of this industrial German town is awash with the squeals of sounds now foreign to those legions of numb-thumb video gamers: kids playing outside.
Were this somewhere in America, depending on the season, the air might be punctuated with the words, “swing, batta!”, “don’t come in here with that!” or “run, fool!” But in Europe and most everywhere else in the world, the only word uttered that matters is GOOOAAALLL!

And when that goal is celebrated, the response can be anything from a series of cartwheels to a wicked samba shake at the corner kick area.

But the joy of the impromptu celebration is tempered somewhat by some kid grabbing a banana and haphazardly tossing it toward the makeshift goal.

An adult who watches nearby runs onto the playing area, grabs the fruit and shakes the culprit, screaming, “Bitte — nicht hier!” (Please! Not here!)
As the group of young people — some Italian, some Turkish, African and German get back to playing, the dark-skinned goaltender that was scored on seems to shake it off and once again becomes part of the game’s ebb and flow.

Whether you call it soccer — or football — all aficionados of the sport call it “the beautiful game.” But the beauty of that game has been severely marred by years of racial tension, generated at the professional level by Europe’s apparent inability to deal with acts of racism against Black and brown players.

Now with the sport’s premiere event on the world stage, the 2010 World Cup (slated for South Africa) — more super than the Super Bowl, with billions of viewers literally shutting down countries to watch every kick, pass, save and goal — will be scrutinized for a different kind of foul.

Among the European leagues, such as La Liga (Spain) and the Serie A (Italy) thousands of African and African-American players have suffered through long-standing, intolerable acts of hard-core racism.

Fans have taken name-calling to a level that would be unthinkable in even the most passionately partisan of North American stadiums.

In Spain, FC Barcelona footballer Samuel Eto, originally from Cameroon and the leading scorer in the Primera Liga, was so inundated by monkey chants and peanuts thrown from a virulent crowd in Zaragoza that he threatened to walk off the field with the ball.

Spanish fans at another stadium threw bananas at their own goaltender (an African), calling him a “piece of garbage.”

Marc Antonio Zoro, a native of Cote D’Ivoire who plays for Messina in the Serie A, broke down in tears after countless banana peels were tossed at him by rival fanatics from league power Inter Milan.

Nigerian Adebowale Ogungbure, who plays for German team Sachsen Leipzig, returned hate chants from taunting fans with the Nazi salute, prompting his being attacked by already enraged fans.

Mike Gilliam, an ex-soldier who has lived in Stuttgart since 1985, says that incident was among the ugliest. “In Germany , the Nazi stiff-arm salute is illegal,” said Gilliam. “That was like throwing gasoline on a fire.”

“My son is nine years old and he plays soccer. I don’t know what I would do if someone threw bananas at him; but I know what I would do if I spotted anyone doing that within my reach.”

Gilliam implies location also had a lot to do with the response. “Leipzig is in the eastern part of the country, while Stuttgart is located in the southwestern part.”

“Even after (the) reunification, the part that was formerly East Germany has been a trouble spot. It’s so bad that African community groups there constantly warn people to be very careful traveling outside major cities in the East because of the hooligans and neo-Nazi gangs.”

French national team striker Thierry Henry, arguably the greatest scorer in soccer’s modern era, received the ultimate insult, courtesy of Spain’s national team coach Luis Aragones, who implored his charges to play better than “that black s–t.”

The comments were caught on camera, and Aragones never apologized for his words.

Any success that America will have in scoring on their World Cup opponents will depend in large on midfielder DaMarcus Beasley. Beasley, who plays abroad for Dutch League club PSV Eindhoven, in an interview with the Miami Herald, revealed the difficulty in remaining focused on the pitch (soccer field).

“You hear the N-word, boos and the monkey chants every time you touch the ball, but you can’t take it personally. Y ou can’t stop to correct the fans.”

Sports psychologist Dr. Harry S. Edwards sees a direct parallel between the Jim Crow-era treatment of Black folk and the open hostility spewing from European pitches.

“There are two things you are dealing with here,” said Edwards. “First, you are dealing with a rigid class structure. For years, no matter how far down you were to begin, you are class-locked into a mindset that predetermines your fate. Sports (in Europe) started out as recreational vehicles for the elite; and those that excelled became heroes by the cultural and racial identity.

“Eventually, that fan support and allegiance would trickle down to that handful of Black athletes that came over. But as those numbers began to swell, so did the problems.”

“You now have a situation in soccer where not only are the Black and brown athletes the star players, there are so many on all of the teams that they violate the cultural memory of those same European fans, and they cannot accept it,” Edwards said.

Edwards moreover contends this anger magnifies itself further with the selection of the national team rosters. “Europeans have always seen themselves as dominant — as “the people.” When you see yourself as such, you see others as something else.”

“Under those circumstances, it’s difficult to see themselves doing what is right on behalf of all these “others.”

Nikki Franke was a member of the U.S. Olympic fencing team in 1976, and was on the ill-fated 1980 team that stayed home due to President Jimmy Carter’s boycott.

“While the Olympics are an opportunity for a country to put its best foot forward to the world, the kind of unbridled spirit of nationalism as exhibited in a World Cup can just as easily be exploited as exalted.”
“The (racism) issue is one of great concern, but I feel confident those responsible for security will be able to stop anything major before it starts.”
For Gilliam, it has already started. “The German National team has Black members (among them Gerald Asamoah and Patrick Owomoyela), and the neo-Nazis tried to criticize the selection by printing a World Cup calendar with a white team jersey and a caption that said, “white (sic) should be more than a color of a shirt for a national team.”

“It reminds me of my time in the military. When trouble came, we (Black soldiers) did our job. But when it was all over, we were niggers again.”

“I grew up in Little Rock , and I saw what happened with Brown v. Board of Education — I lived it. This soccer racism is an extension of a civil rights problem that will be here long after the Cup is over. All you have to do is look at how Paris was burning to see that something else needs to be done.”