I’m excited for the World Cup, if only because all my TV channels here are in Greek, and sports are the only thing I like to watch because you don’t have to understand what they’re saying. But apparently some football fans have been on their worst behavior lately.
As he left the soccer field after a club match in the eastern German city of Halle on March 25, the Nigerian forward Adebowale Ogungbure was spit upon, jeered with racial remarks and mocked with monkey noises. In rebuke, he placed two fingers under his nose to simulate a Hitler mustache and thrust his arm in a Nazi salute.
In April, the American defender Oguchi Onyewu, playing for his professional club team in Belgium, dismissively gestured toward fans who were making simian chants at him. Then, as he went to throw the ball inbounds, Onyewu said a fan of the opposing team reached over a barrier and punched him in the face.
Very nice, guys. And it’s escalating as European teams sign more players from Africa and Latin America.
Players and antiracism experts said they expected offensive behavior during the tournament, including monkey-like chanting; derisive singing; the hanging of banners that reflect neofascist and racist beliefs; and perhaps the tossing of bananas or banana peels, all familiar occurrences during matches in Spain, Italy, eastern Germany and eastern Europe.
“For us it’s quite clear this is a reflection of underlying tensions that exist in European societies,” said Piara Powar, director of the London-based antiracist soccer organization Kick It Out. He said of Eastern Europe: “Poverty, unemployment, is a problem. Indigenous people are looking for easy answers to blame. Often newcomers bear the brunt of the blame.”
And perhaps the intense xenophobia and stringent immigration laws in many European nations sets the cultural tone.
After making a Nazi salute, which is illegal in Germany, Ogungbure of Nigeria was investigated by the authorities. But a charge of unconstitutional behavior against him was soon dropped because his gesture had been meant to renounce extremist activity.
“I regret what I did,” Ogungbure said in a telephone interview from Leipzig. “I should have walked away. I’m a professional, but I’m a human, too. They don’t spit on dogs. Why should they spit on me? I felt like a nobody.”
I wonder if they also investigated the person who make racist comments and monkey noises at him.
It’s pretty clear that Ogungbure made the Nazi symbol as a comment on the fan’s behavior, reminding him of where racism led German society before. Maybe not an ideal reaction, but an understandable one. And perhaps in addition to cracking down on racism, Germany should consider free expression rights. I understand that their past is deeply marred by hate, but illegalizing gestures because they evoke a painful past seems a little heavy-handed. That said, of course the authorities are justified in removing offending fans from soccer stadiums.
Gerald Asamoah, a forward on Germany’s World Cup team and a native of Ghana, has been recounting an incident in the 1990’s when he was pelted with bananas before a club match in Cottbus. “I’ll never forget that,” he said in a television interview. “It’s like we’re not people.” He has expressed anger and sadness over a banner distributed by a right-wing group that admonished, “No Gerald, You Are Not Germany.”
That’s certainly disturbing. But the fact is, as much as Germany passes anti-racism laws, xenophobia is deeply entrenched in their laws and culture. Try and immigrate to Germany from a developing nation (or, heck, any nation) if you lack German heritage and let me know how easy it is. The German govermnet sends a clear message with its laws: If you aren’t ethnically German, then no, You Are Not Germany.
That isn’t to say that all racism can be traced back to the government, and if only the laws would change, minds would follow. Clearly, this right-wing hatred operates independent of the law. But German institutions send a clear message with their approach to immigration, and limiting public gestures isn’t going to do much to change the cultural mentality. It’s easy to say that racism doesn’t exist (or to say that you aren’t racist) when you’re surrounded by people with your same skin color — it’s another thing to have people who look differently from you living in your neighborhood, working in your ofice, and playing on your sports fields. This is what supposed bastions of liberalism in Europe are facing now. They’re not doing a great job.