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The 2006 World Cup: Will Racism Come Home to Roost?

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Message Dave Zirin
The most watched tournament in the universe, the World Cup, opens today amid fears that an open and violent racism could upstage the games, humiliate its German hosts, and provide an international platform for Neo-Nazi swill. The rising number of attacks on
non-whites in Germany, combined with a spate of racist
sloganeering and taunting of black soccer players
throughout Europe, has set the stage for an
unprecedented display of racism on a global sports
stage. The argument here is that the German government
and the EU have only themselves to blame. These are
chickens coming home to roost.

The sewers where Neo-Nazis nestle, have been buzzing
with using the World Cup as political platform since
the day Munich was awarded the games. The German
government, however, dutifully ignored the Reich
rumblings, preparing instead for the corporate bonanza
that accompanies the Cup. Yet the current climate
could have been easily predicted if German officials
had bothered to lift their face from the haystacks of
Euros or recognize the repercussions of their own

First there has been the growing pattern of "football
racism" across the continent. In late February,
Cameroonian FC Barcelona star Samuel Eto'o almost
walked off the pitch after being showered by "fans"
with monkey chants and peanuts. Last November,
Messina's Marc Zoro picked up the ball and threatened
to walk off the field because of racist chants from
followers of Inter Milan. These are only the most well
publicized stories. There are countless tales of
players of African origin being treated, in the words
of one, "worse than dogs." This has gotten even more
play in the United States as US star DaMarcus Beasley
has recounted tales of monkey noises and tossed banana
skins that trail him every time his foot touches the

This has been aggravated by the rise of anti-immigrant
sentiment in Europe that has of course become de
rigueur in the United States as well. Shaun Harkin,
who played for Coleraine FC in the Northern Irish
League and captained Brown University's soccer squad
to the NCAA quarterfinals, now works as an
immigrant-rights activist in Chicago. He said to us,
"The racist abuse players have faced across Europe is
an aspect of the growing backlash against immigrants.
Immigration from former European colonies has grown.
As in the United States, immigration has been
necessary for many European economies and a source of
cheap labor-but immigrant communities have also been a
convenient political scapegoat in a continent riddled
with unemployment and increasingly anxious conditions
for workers dealing with the repercussions of
deepening neo-liberal policies." In other words,t he
German government wants to have it both ways: it's
proper to foment anti-Muslim bigotry, tighten
immigration restrictions and attack asylum seekers,
but anti-black racism shouldn't be allowed to sully
our reputation or diminish the grandeur of this highly
profitable spectacle.

Their political head was firmly ensconced in the sand
until a man named Uwe-Karsten Heye upturned the apple
car. Heye, a former spokesman for the Social
Democratic-Green coalition government, said, "There
are small and mid-sized towns in Brandenburg and
elsewhere where I would advise anyone [in the country
for the
World Cup] with a different skin color not to go. They
might not make it out alive." Heye, a co-founder of an
anti-racist group called "Show Your Face," was slammed
for his comments. In Brandenburg, State Premier
Matthias Platzeck, a fellow Social Democrat, called
his words an "absurd slur of a whole region that is no
way justifiable." Wolfgang Bosback, a leading
Christian Democrat parliamentarian, denounced Heye for
singling out Brandenburg. But Bosback was at least
equally alarmed by the
prospect that such comments would damage the tourist
industry, saying it would be "fatal" if Heye's
comments kept people from Germany.

The government found, however, that people both at
home and abroad were more concerned with the message
than the messenger. As a columnist in Berlin's daily
Die Tageszeitung wrote, "the fact that non-Germans or
non-white Germans can barely move around in safety is
[the real] scandal," not Heye's comments.

Spurred to action, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble
promised that his government would "not tolerate any
form of extremism, xenophobia or anti-Semitism."
Shäuble's solution, from the Dick
Cheney school of diplomacy, is to station tanks
outside soccer stadiums. Schäuble, it should be noted
has "balanced" his promises of combating racism by
adding, "Blond and blue-eyed Germans can also become
the victims of violence, sometimes attacked by those
don't have a German (family) background."

The international soccer body FIFA has made toothless
pledges to combat racism at the Cup. Their plans
include two "anti-racism days," where banners will be
draped at each game reading, "Say No to
Racism"-although they will be taken down at beginning
of the game. This is what a FIFA spokesperson called a
"clear message." Thank goodness some players have
taken stronger stands. In last month's European club
championship, French superstar Thierry Henry sported
an armband promoting an antiracist campaign called
Stand Up Speak Up. Henry pushed his sponsor Nike to
produce black and white intertwined armbands that
demonstrate a commitment against racism. So far, they
have sold more than five million. "That's important in
making the very real point that racism is a problem
for everyone, a collective ailment," Henry said to
Time Magazine. "It shows that people of all colors,
even adversaries on the pitch, are banding together in
this, because we're all suffering from it together."

In addition to Henry's initiatives, Muslim and
Christian religious leaders organized a very
successful Berlin game in early May. The best hope for
a Cup without racism won't be found in the CDU's tanks
but in the
numerous antiracist groups in Germany that will be on
the ground, including Football Against Racism (FARE),
a European-wide network that has pressured FIFA to
take concrete measures. FARE speaks for the majority
of the world when they say that they want to see the
'beautiful game' played without the cancer of racism."
But if the ugly head of hate is raised, the blame
should extend beyond the thugs.
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Dave Zirin, Press Action 's 2005 and 2006 Sportswriter of the Year, has been called "an icon in the world of progressive sports ". Robert Lipsyte says he is "the best young sportswriter in the United States. " 

Dave writes about the politics of sports for the Nation Magazine, and is author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love

You can receive his column Edge of Sports,
every week by going to http://zirin.com/edgeofsports/?p=subscribe&id=1.

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