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Soccer’s anti-racism playbook is failing players — ‘A wholesale change in approach is needed’

Field staff place a board with the Serie A crest and the slogan of the anti-racism campaign before a match on March 19, 2023, in Rome. (Ivan Romano/Getty Images)
Field staff place a board with the Serie A crest and the slogan of the anti-racism campaign before a match on March 19, 2023, in Rome. (Ivan Romano/Getty Images) (Ivan Romano via Getty Images)

The racial slurs and taunts bombarded Mike Maignan, and all he could do was wander, hurt and helpless. They flew from the stands of an Italian soccer stadium and rained down on a vast, green field that supposedly doubles as a safe space. But they rained, gleefully, without fear or consequence, and … “What do you want me to say?” Maignan later wrote.

He could join a chorus of millions condemning racism. He could call for lifetime bans and prosecution of the fans who made him feel subhuman. But why?

“As long as these events are treated as 'isolated incidents' and no comprehensive action is taken, history will repeat itself again, and again, and again,” he warned — and not on Saturday night, after he and his AC Milan teammates walked off a Serie A pitch amid “monkey” chants.

Maignan, a French goalkeeper, wrote those words after being racially abused by fans in 2021.

He is one of many Black footballers who've endured racism. One of many who've pleaded with the game’s guardians to make it stop. And those guardians have failed him. They’ve failed Romelu Lukaku and Mario Balotelli and Vinícius Junior. They’ve failed countless innocent players, players who’ve lost faith in a sport unwilling to protect them, players such as Kasey Palmer, a Jamaican midfielder subjected to monkey gestures on Saturday while playing for Coventry City in the English Championship.

“I'll be honest,” Palmer wrote afterward. “It feels like things will never change, no matter how hard we try.”

It feels that way because racism is a deeply ingrained societal ill, but also because soccer’s governing bodies have failed to address it.

“We made press releases, advertising campaigns, protocols,” Maignan bemoaned Sunday, the morning after he suffered repeated racial abuse from Udinese fans, the 36th racist incident documented in Italian soccer this season alone. “And nothing has changed.”

Leagues and national soccer federations, all overseen by FIFA, have devised a spineless approach. They make forceful statements, but in practice, they place the onus on Black players. They often tout their three-step protocol: public address announcement, match suspension, and finally, if the abuse continues, match abandonment. But they rarely, if ever, see it through to Step 3 — and they largely rely on victims to trigger the steps.

That, precisely, is what happened Saturday in northeast Italy. “The first time, I went to get the ball, and I heard people call me ‘monkey,’ but I didn’t say anything,” Maignan told Sky Italia. Nor did anyone else, so, when “they did it again,” Maignan explained, “I asked the bench for help.” Finally, in the 33rd minute, as chanting continued, he left his goal and walked toward the sideline. Only then did the referee whistle and suspend the match.

Maignan knew that others surely had heard the abuse.

“The spectators who were in the stands, who saw everything, who heard everything but chose to keep quiet, you are complicit,” he later wrote.

But it’s worth exploring why they kept quiet. Perhaps the answer is basic social psychology. Or, perhaps, it’s that nobody has ever incentivized speaking up.

Italian soccer authorities used to fully neglect racism. Now, they appear to follow a classic blame-shifting playbook. They target a handful of guilty fans and ban them from stadiums. In doing so, they shirk their own responsibility as governing institutions. It’s “the easiest thing possible,” Piara Powar, the executive director of FARE, a network of anti-discrimination organizations working throughout soccer, told Yahoo Sports. It’s also ineffective, because most perpetrators evade surveillance — and return the following week, “knowing they're able to get away with it,” Powar explained.

“The harder thing to do,” he said, “and the more impactful thing, is to apply sanctions to the club.”

“If clubs cannot prevent this happening,” the anti-discrimination organization Kick It Out said in a statement, “they too should face consequences.”

This is the solution that has hardly been explored and one that many believe is necessary. It’s forfeits and point deductions, or at least empty stadiums. And yes, it would be controversial because it would punish players for acts they didn’t commit. But it would also send a galvanizing message to everyone affiliated with a club, bystanders included: Tackling racism is all of our responsibility.

It is not Maignan’s responsibility. “It cannot be on the players to solve this,” Kick It Out said. “They are already showing courage under extreme distress and emotional trauma. They need support with actions, not words.”

Words are what FIFA president Gianni Infantino offered in a Saturday statement. They made headlines because Infantino said, in part: “We have to implement an automatic forfeit for the team whose fans have committed racism and caused the match to be abandoned.”

But those words also felt empty because matches are hardly ever abandoned in the first place.

They don’t get abandoned because refs don’t follow protocol.

Refs don’t follow protocol because their employers, the federations and leagues, either don’t train them or don’t empower them to take severe action.

And the only entities capable of forcing their hands are governments, confederations and … FIFA.

“FIFA are the governing body of the world game. If they want to implement something … they will do [it],” Troy Townsend, Kick It Out’s head of player engagement, told Sky, in response to Infantino’s statement. “Words are nice. We’ve heard them before. What we want now is … to make sure that it’s implemented."

FIFA, in theory, has the power to punish federations that don’t punish clubs. It has the power to punish people such as Noël Le Graët — the scandal-ridden French football chief who once claimed that racism in soccer “does not exist” — rather than supporting him and hiring him. It had the power in 2013 to advance an anti-racism task force’s suggestion of points deductions or relegation for “reoffenders or for serious incidents.” It should not need another player-led task force, convened in June 2023, to crack down.

Because this is not a Black player problem; it is not on Vini Jr. to solve.

It is on people such as Javier Tebas, president of Spain’s La Liga, who last year scolded Vini for calling out racism.

It is on white players such as Leonardo Bonucci, who said in 2019 that his Juventus teammate, Moise Kean, shared “50-50” blame for fans’ racist jeers.

It is on teammates and opponents of all races to intervene and walk off before a Black player has to.

It is on each club, each federation, each league to stop hiding behind the myth of isolated idiocy, and acknowledge that both problems and solutions are systemic.

“Today,” Maignan wrote in his Sunday Instagram post, “an entire system must take responsibility.”

In Italian soccer, FARE wrote, “a wholesale change in approach is needed.”