Sometimes it’s awfully hard to make a victim out of one that so many hold in contempt. Take for instance AC Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng. Much maligned during an underachieving two-year stint at Spurs, Prince also didn’t make any friends in his native Germany when he decided early on in his career that he should instead play for Ghana. Tattooed from head to toe, outspoken and flashy, Boateng often also rubs the traditionalists out there the wrong way, too.
So when the versatile midfielder angrily punted a ball into the stands and then stormed off the pitch — followed quickly by the rest of his Milan teammates — at a friendly match this past weekend after suffering persistent racial abuse, it was pretty much a given that it was going to stir things up a bit.
Racism, the most frequent of football’s numerous recurring STI’s, has once again flared up to embarrass the sport. The numerous talking heads of the game all scrambled to their podiums to provide red-faced, PR-approved statements condemning the guilty. And, let’s not forget, pointing fingers at anyone but themselves to shift blame. Predictable. However the most confounding of those statements came from none other than WSOTP’s favorite punching bag, Sepp Blatter. Instead of raining down hellfire on Pro Patria’s heinously behaved fans, Blatter instead chose to shout criticisms at Boateng from his ivory tower. In a statement to Abu Dhabi’s The National, the FIFA president was quoted as saying: “Walk off? No. I don’t think that is the solution… I don’t think you can run away, because eventually you can run away if you lose a match.” He may as well have blamed Boateng for agitating the home fans by being black. Silly minion, you should have known better than to walk off the pitch rather than to stay on and take your abuse like a good boy.
Of course, Sepp also wanted to make sure everyone knew that he was still against the idea of racism. This despite his track record of not really rating it as a serious problem. Tacking on a quote about FIFA’s ”zero tolerance of racism in the stadium” and urging local authorities to impose “harsh” sanctions, such as “point deductions” is par for the course. Not a bad solution to the issue, but the problem is that it’s nothing more than a talking point. Racism seems to be less harshly punished than other ills such as hooliganism, which might help to explain why it remains such a mainstay headline within the sport.
So knowing all of that, Boateng did the one thing left in his power to help end the abuse he was currently suffering: walk off the pitch and leave it behind. And when he and his Milan teammates exited the pitch, they collectively punished the fans for their sinful behavior.
Blatter — surprise, surprise — disliked this decision. FIFA have warned players against walking off before, with penalty of yellow card hanging over your head as deterrent. But in choosing to do so in a friendly, where nothing was on the line, Boateng and his Milan teammates had a well-timed opportunity to make a statement. And by doing so, they wrestled power away from FIFA… for a brief moment at least. Hence Sepp’s protesting.
Sure, FIFA/UEFA can dish out fines and force closed-door matches, but none of those things actually hurt the supporters causing the problems directly. After all, they can still watch the match on TV and could care less about a €10,000 fine delivered to the club. Note the effect that’s had on serial abusers such as Lazio and Serbia (See: None). But when the Rosanerri closed up shop early against Pro Patria, it hit those fans right in their pocketbooks. Not the club’s. By walking off, Boateng and company effectively levied the first “fans’ fine”.
Think about it. Pro Patria play in the Italian fourth tier, so their supporters likely put dropped a healthy chunk of change for a chance to watch the big boys play for 90 minutes. But thanks to the shallow actions of a small percent of their support, they were only treated to 25. Not exactly value for money, right? Sure, some will argue that the walk off punishes those that weren’t racists, too. And that’s accurate. But sometimes it takes punishing the majority for the misdeeds of a minority to get any sort of reaction. The power of peer pressure is tremendously underrated, and hopefully by coming down hard on everyone, the well-behaved supporters in their ranks will look to silence the troublemakers in the future.
Now, as mentioned earlier, the timing of this Boateng’s protest was pivotal. Had this been an actual Serie A fixture or — dare I say — a Champions League match, I doubt the Milan hierarchy would have been quite as supportive. Abandoning a match without the referee’s approval normally stipulates a massive fine and/or match forfeiture by most leagues’ rules. That said, it could also be argued that quitting a match of greater significance could amplify the impact.
A thin line to toe, admittedly, but that’s the point we’ve reached in the sport when it comes to racism.
So until FIFA, UEFA and the rest of the governing bodies start appropriately punishing the clubs and their fans too, nothing will ever change. Monkey chants, hissing like the gas chambers and bananas thrown on the pitch will continue pour down from the stands. And until they’re adequately protected, the players are justified in taking matters into their own hands.