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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
When soccer takes the global stage this week, its struggles will, too. And that includes racism with roots in Europe's street gangs that has festered among fans of the world's most prestigious clubs.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published June 4, 2006
[Times photo: Getty Images]
A soccer supporter attaches a Nazi flag to a crowd barrier during a Spanish first division match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona in Bernabeu stadium in 1997.
The worst of it came with the corner kicks.
In those moments, star midfielder DaMarcus Beasley of Fort Wayne, Ind. - one of the top U.S. players to compete in Europe this year - would get set to loft the ball toward teammates hovering by the goal for his Netherlands club, PSV Eindhoven.
With his back to the nearby stands, Beasley could easily hear the sounds of hatred and ignorance.
"People call out the n-word and all that stuff," he says. "And they chant monkey noises at you."
Beasley, 23, is the first soccer player from the United States to see postseason action in the vaunted Champions League. But as an African-American, he also has found himself - along with many other black and minority players from around the world - a constant target of racial slurs in European stadiums, particularly in Spain, Italy and countries in the eastern part of the continent.
"I don't let it bother me," adds Beasley, speaking from North Carolina during a break in training with the U.S. national team. "I just focus on the game and block it out."
But blocking out the steady cacophony of racism in the soccer stands around Europe has been impossible in recent years, and the problem threatens to cast a pall over the World Cup, which kicks off Friday in Germany and runs through July 9.
"I've said it before - it's ignorant people," Beasley says. "It's maybe just a thousand out of 60,000 at a game. So it's hard to pick those thousand out."
Still, as incidents of racism at soccer games have increased, so have intensive efforts to combat it. And those two paths could collide shortly on the world stage.
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In the 1970s and '80s, the issue that made international headlines was hooliganism, with gangs of drunken brawlers often marring English games.
That situation was brought under control as British authorities cracked down on the troublemakers, with the help of security cameras to identify and punish the fans involved.
On the other hand, racist behavior among fans with affiliations to neo-Nazi or ultraright organizations has gone on for years largely unchecked in other parts of Europe. Pro-Hitler banners and symbols have been commonplace, with a human swastika created in the stands during a game in Poland and even intricate choreography by extremist fans in Romania forming Adolf Hitler's face.
Black players have routinely been pelted with bananas amid booming choruses of monkey chants.
"I could open a market store," retired English player Carl Saunders told HBO's Real Sports for its Emmy-winning segment on the topic, "Fields of Hate."
France's Thierry Henry, arguably the top striker in the game today, described during the program how he felt something on his back while taking a corner kick: spit from fans.
In March, Nigerian midfielder Adebowale Ogungbure, playing for an East German fourth division team, was spit on by angry fans as he walked off the field. According to an account at Spiegel Online, he was called "dirty n-----" and "ape." When the monkey noises began as he passed the stands, Ogungbure used two fingers over his top lip to mimic Hitler and gave a Nazi salute.
He was immediately struck and grabbed by two fans, but fought them off and was helped by a teammate into the locker room.
"I was just so angry, I didn't care," he told the German publication. "I could have been killed, but I had to do something."
In fact, a number of individuals and groups have been trying to do something in the past few years.
Henry, a member of England's Arsenal club, had enough in 2004.
First, Spain's national coach Luis Aragones exhorted one of his team members to play better than "that black s---" Henry. The remark was picked up by Spanish TV cameras and aired worldwide. Henry declined to respond, but the episode soon gave way to one he could not ignore.
A month later he watched, along with millions of viewers, as black players on England's national team competed in what was billed as a "friendly" game in Madrid. But they were met with racist chants by the majority of the crowd of 50,000.
Henry approached his sponsor, Nike, with the idea of launching an antiracism project. The result was the Stand Up/Speak Up campaign, featuring intertwined, black-and-white wristbands as a symbol of racial unity and ads in which top-name European players, black and white, promoted an antiracism message.
"Thierry said to us, 'I want something I can wear on the pitch (field) and (Arsenal manager) Arsene Wenger can wear under his suit,' " said Charlie Brooks, Nike corporate communications manager. "He was heavily involved in decisions about the campaign and what it should represent."
About 4.5-million wristbands were sold raising more than 5-million euros (more than $6-million) for antiracism projects in 11 countries.
Meanwhile, organizations such as Kick It Out in England and the Never Again Association in Poland - both part of a network called Football Against Racism in Europe, or FARE - have continued work on raising awareness and challenging racism through educational programs and community initiatives.
The Federation Internationale de Football Association, the governing body of the sport, has begun taking a hard line against racism at games, adopting an amendment in March to its disciplinary code. FIFA may impose fines and suspensions for players or managers who engage in racist displays at games and ban spectators for up to two years. It can penalize clubs whose fans "behave in a discriminatory or contemptuous manner during a match," though it has backed off that option for the World Cup.
"The fans will be spread around the stadium at this World Cup; we haven't set aside specific blocks," FIFA president Joseph S. Blatter told journalists two weeks ago. "So we can't punish teams for incidents where we can't clearly apportion blame."
In addition to FIFA's efforts, the European Union has passed measures to bolster border checks to keep out identified hooligan elements. Germany has beefed up security to ensure that rival gangs from Poland and other Eastern Europe countries don't turn the World Cup into a stage for recruiting and furthering racist agendas. And human rights officials will be on hand to serve as monitors.
Somewhere in between, soccer will be played.
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In Zurich, there is a tinge of anger in the voice of Jerome Champagne, FIFA's delegate of the president for special affairs.
"These racist bastards - excuse me - are using our game, because in a stadium of 60,000, it's easy to be anonymous," Champagne says. "What they are doing is using football, staining the image of the game because they can propagate their stupid ideology. And we have to tackle that.
"But the main issue is not racism within soccer, but racism around soccer."
FIFA organized its first conference to discuss ways to combat it in 2001. Coupled with its recently adopted sanctions, there are widespread awareness campaigns. Antiracism banners will be displayed at every World Cup match and a Say No to Racism event is planned for the quarterfinals. Captains from the final eight teams will read an antiracism message from the field, followed by a news conference in Berlin.
"Let me tell you that on the 12th of July 1998, we were all crying to see France, my country, win the World Cup," Champagne says. "And the team was composed of a very mixed group of players - French Arabs, French Africans, French French, whatever. We had all colors. This team symbolized what France is today. But did it stop racism? No. We cannot ask sport to solve all the problems of our society, though we would like it to have more impact."
Indeed, France has seen its share of race problems in the soccer stands, perhaps not surprising in light of last year's riots in the country's North African immigrant ghettos.
Simon Kuper, a sports columnist for the Financial Times of London who lives in Paris, wrote a book about the meaning of the game to different cultures. Called Soccer Against the Enemy, it has been rereleased in advance of the World Cup.
"There is a much longer tradition of black players in France possibly than anywhere," Kuper says. "But you also have some white skinhead fans and, in fact, in Paris, which has one of the two biggest clubs, you have one hard-core group of white skinhead racist fans and at the other end of the stadium, you have one hard-core group of black and brown fans. They all support the same team but they hate each other and there's occasional fighting."
England experienced racist soccer incidents in the 1980s, says Kuper, as more black players came to the country.
"It was seen as all good fun and part of football culture and accepted for a long time," he says. "But gradually, there was a turning away from racism in multicultural Britain, getting very strong in the early '90s. Soccer became more family friendly and there were attempts to get rid of this bad behavior and of hooliganism."
Today, England is the progressive nation in the European mix, with marquee players such as David Beckham speaking out.
"Although he's completely moronic, he has grasped the right side of this as have the other players," Kuper says. "So when (black) English players were abused in matches in Spain and later in Slovakia, he as captain and other white players said, 'We're not taking this. We're not standing for this.' That's obviously important in mobilizing public opinion, whereas in Italy or Spain, you can still hear people say, 'Oh, it's all good fun.' "
Eastern European countries had no black players under communism. But they have seen an influx from Africa and Brazil since the early years of capitalism, adds Kuper. The players have become targets.
"While there's a lot being done in the U.K. and some other countries, we still have significant parts of the continent where you would not be able to attend a football game without hearing some kind of racial slur - whether it's five people or hundreds," says Kick It Out director Piara Powar in London.
Soccer racism is fueled, he maintains, by economic woes and distrust of outsiders, when migrants and foreigners are perceived as threats to job security.
"It's important to understand that everything in football is very close to the streets, and everything that happens is a reflection of what's going on in society as a whole," he says. "In the States, it's very different. There are racial tensions, but they don't play over to mass sporting arenas."
With the World Cup approaching, fears for the safety of black and Asian fans among the expected 3-million guests in Germany have been on the rise. One German paper reported that neo-Nazi numbers have grown from 3,800 in 2004 to 4,100 in 2005, with a related increase in groups of skinheads. As recently as May, there was a bottle attack on a Turkish-born German politician by two youths yelling "s - - - foreigner."
German authorities have expressed confidence about security, however. According to Kick It Out's Web site, they have identified 21 games as "high risk" and 3,600 police will be on active duty, with 5,000 troops on standby.
Nigerian-born Ogungbure, the player abused by east German neo-Nazi fans three months ago, sees the World Cup as a chance to confront racism.
"Now that all these nations are coming to Germany, to play together as one," he told Reuters, "this is the time to make clear that humanity and respect for others are part of the game."
But he added a somber note:
"I am human. I am not an animal or a bimbo. I like my job. I want to play football, but that's just got nothing to do with the game anymore."
WHAT: Men's soccer world championships, held every four years.
WHEN/WHERE: Friday through July 9 in cities throughout Germany.
TV COVERAGE: ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC will combine to show all 64 games of the tournament. Spanish-language network Univision also will broadcast every game.