Do you ever wonder why professional soccer isn’t popular in mainstream America? Nearly all of my friends and classmates played the sport as kids, either in school or on a club team, yet somewhere between childhood and adulthood, a disconnect happened, leaving soccer - everyone’s once favorite sport to play - in the dust; soccer uniforms and tube socks end up in the back of the closet or in a bin at Goodwill while parents are out buying cool NFL or NBA jerseys for their kids instead.
I’ve never understood why soccer can’t seem to stay relevant beyond the youth years for us Americans, but after a recent flurry of negative international soccer news, I’m not losing any sleep over soccer’s lack of recognition here in the United States.
Usually the only soccer news to hit my ears and eyes (outside of World Cup coverage) comes in the form of random highlights on SportsCenter or the occasional fùtbol folly on ESPN’s SportsNation. Over the last decade, the focus has steadily migrated from the game itself to fan violence, racism and other ugly aspects of soccer than have nothing to do with the fundamentals of the sport.
From the ridiculous, such as Argentine soccer star Ever Banega who was lost for the season with a broken leg after accidentally being run over by his own car in a freak accident at a gas station, to more serious situations involving hate speech and deeply rooted world issues, it’s seems like soccer can’t get anything right these days.
I remember being profoundly horrified a few years ago after watching a feature on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumble about how soccer stadiums had been transformed into neo-Nazi protest and recruiting platforms. Video footage showed massive sections of stadiums being bought out by neo-Nazi groups as thousands filled the seats and chanted en masse, saluting Hitler, and hurling obscenities at ethnic players throughout the entirety of professional soccer matches.
Because of the hate-filled mobs in the crowd, certain teams in Europe have been forced to either play their home games in an empty stadium without any spectators or play scheduled “home” games on the road, away from raucous and racist fans .
Sadly, the madness has spread from the stands onto the field itself. The recent “Handshake-Gate” incident at a Liverpool-Manchester United match gained international attention, and was so outrageous that it made top headlines here in the U.S.
Here’s a quick summary from CBSNews.com:
"Players from both teams had to be separated in the tunnel at halftime after Liverpool’s Luis Suarez refused to shake the hand of United’s Patrice Evra before kickoff. Suarez was making his first start since serving an eight-match ban for racially abusing Evra in October."
Yes, in a moment that was meant for Suarez (a Uruguayan national) to make peace with Evra (who was born in Senegal and raised in France) after he had previously taunted the Man U player with racist remarks, Suarez instead opted to keep the feud alive with the dramatic handshake snub.
Does Suarez really hate Evra because he’s Black, or is he just fueling the fire to increase the drama in order to sell tickets and gain publicity? Both possibilities are deplorable.
To make matters worse, Suarez was strongly defended by his team -which is owned by the parent company of the Boston Red Sox - publicly. It looks like Suarez was preaching to a fairly large choir as the Greater Manchester Police reportedly, “confiscated 7,500 copies of United’s ‘Red Issue’ fanzine, which featured a cutout Ku Klux Klan-style mask bearing the words, ‘LFC Suarez is innocent,’” according to CSBNews.com
An American soccer star who played professionally in Europe once told me of the confusion he felt he first time he took the field there and heard thousands of fans in the stadium making a strange noise he couldn’t quite decipher. Once bananas started flying out of the stands and onto the pitch, he realized the sounds coming from the crowd were monkey noises, directed at a Black player on the opposing team. The player told me he was shocked and had not been warned of such behaviors when he agreed to play in Europe.
While British law enforcement has involved itself in certain race-related soccer incidences - like in the case of Chelsea player John Terry who was formally charged with “racially abusing” Anton Ferdinand during a game last October- intervention is the rare exception to the rule.
"After years of pretending racism wasn’t a serious issue, the Italian league is finally making teams pay for their fans behavior," according to an ABC News article from last July. "They get fined or forced to play home games on the road. But the police are still afraid or unwilling to go into the worst sections of the stadiums to make arrests."
As if this behavior isn’t bad enough on its own, confined to a soccer stadium on any given game day, the truth is that conduct like this is never an isolated incident, but instead, a sign of something much bigger, a hate-filled school of thought deeply rooted in an ugly place that we, as Americans, would like to pretend doesn’t exist anymore.
Simon Kuper, author of “Football Against the Enemy” told ABC News, “As these racist and anti-Semitic chants become tolerated at football grounds, it becomes more tolerated in the rest of society to say racist and anti-Semitic things. And that creates a nasty atmosphere.”
The governing bodies of professional soccer may not be able to police the thoughts of players and fans, nor should they. But officials do have the responsibility of condemning and punishing offensive actions like verbal abuse before such displays eventually escalate to physical violence inside and outside of the stadium.
I see a sad irony watching a sport with the greatest global tournament of all, filled with such hate and intolerance. Until international soccer begins to change the culture from the grassroots level all the way up to the fans and players of Liverpool and Manchester United, I for one, will not be watching, and am encouraging you at home to do the same.