Inter Miami players and head coach Phil Neville alleged Sunday that D.C. United forward Taxi Fountas directed a racial slur at one of their players during an MLS game between the two teams.
The incident occurred during the second half of a 3-2 Miami win, and led to a five-minute stoppage in play, during which referee Ismail Elfath initiated MLS's protocol for on-field allegations of racial abuse.
Neville said postgame that “a word was used that is unacceptable in society. It is the worst word in the world.”
Miami defender DeAndre Yedlin said that, after a confrontation between Fountas and Miami defender Damion Lowe, Fountas "called him the N-word." (Fountas, a Greek star who joined D.C. United earlier this year, is white. Lowe, a Jamaican, is Black.)
Fountas, in a statement posted to Instagram Monday afternoon, denied using "the word I am being accused of using," and denounced "that despicable racial slur."
Elfath, in written responses to questions from pool reporter Pablo Maurer, said that "no official heard any racist or abusive language." An MLS spokeswoman told Yahoo Sports that a league investigation will begin promptly.
D.C. United coach Wayne Rooney, who pulled Fountas from the game almost immediately after the incident, said that "there was a complaint, which I’m sure will get investigated. Not much more I can say.”
The Taxi Fountas-Damion Lowe incident
The initial confrontation between the two players occurred late in the 59th minute. Fountas challenged Lowe for the ball as Lowe was passing back to his own goalkeeper. After he'd released the ball, Lowe appeared to raise his elbow. Fountas then pushed Lowe in the chest, and the two went chest to chest and forehead to forehead for a few seconds, presumably exchanging words.
A few seconds after that, Elfath stopped the game. He spoke with Lowe, then with the two teams' captains. He jogged over to the sideline to talk with Rooney and Neville, and appeared to explain that there'd been an allegation of racism, and that he was following the relevant protocols.
Elfath then jogged back to the field and issued yellow cards to Fountas and Lowe for the original altercation. After a brief discussion, Elfath asked for the ball and prepared to restart the game. A few seconds later, TV cameras flashed backed to Fountas and Lowe, at which point Lowe was being half-restrained, half-comforted by a teammate, and pointing at Fountas.
A few second later, Lowe appeared to be explaining to other D.C. United players that Fountas had called him a "n*****."
Yedlin said postgame that Aimé Mabika, another Miami defender who is also Black, also heard the slur and reacted emotionally.
"[Mabika] is one of the nicest guys, so when you see him react in the way that he did, you know it’s probably something pretty serious," Yedlin said. "It’s something that hit him pretty hard. And as soon as I heard what he said, I got pretty emotional as well.”
Yedlin also said that Mabika confronted Fountas, and later told Yedlin that "you could tell there was shame in his demeanor. You know, head down, sort of backing up a bit. He tried to stick his hand out, but [Mabika] said, 'I'm not shaking your hand after that.'"
Fountas, in his Monday denial, wrote: "We had a hot discussion on the field, but I have not racially abused anyone. I firmly reject racism in any form, it is despicable. I have many friends from many cultures. I always respect the culture, religion and skin color of each person, I am therefore very upset by this accusation and saddened to be falsely accused."
(The ESPN+ broadcast did not capture the portion of the incident when the slur allegedly occurred, nor much of the on-field sound.)
Yedlin, Neville: Miami was prepared to forfeit
Yedlin and other Miami players, meanwhile, had come to the sideline. Yedlin said postgame that he, his teammates and Neville had decided that they would not play the rest of the match "until something was done with that player, and if nothing was done, then we weren’t going to continue."
Neville indicated that he was prepared to accept a forfeit. "I would have given up the result to make a stand," he said.
Neville and Rooney, former teammates at Manchester United in England, spoke multiple times during the minutes-long stoppage. Elfath, at one point, again jogged toward the sideline and huddled with the two coaches. Lowe walked toward the sideline in conversation with D.C. United's Ravel Morrison and Christian Benteke, both of whom are also Black.
The game ultimately resumed in the 65th minute — but only after Elfath spoke to Lowe with his arm around the player's shoulder, and only after Neville patted Rooney on the cheek as the two went back to their respective benches.
Less than a minute later, Rooney sent on a sub for Fountas, and put his arm around Fountas as the 27-year-old All-Star exited the field. Neville later said that he had "massive respect" for Rooney, and that on Sunday night, Rooney "did more than any goal he’s ever scored."
Yedlin's interpretation was that, after Neville and Rooney spoke, "they decided to take the player off.”
A D.C. United spokesman said in a statement two-and-a-half hours after the game that the club was "aware of the allegations involving a player during the match against Inter Miami CF. The club will work closely with Major League Soccer and Inter Miami to investigate the incident."
Miami won the game on a stoppage-time goal from Gonzalo Higuain. Yedlin, though, said that "at the end of the day, it doesn’t even feel like a win because of that incredibly dark moment.
"It's gonna be very interesting to see what kind of stand the league takes against this," Yedlin said. "And we'll see how serious they are about this topic. We have a lot of campaigns, we can wear T-shirts, we can have signs, and 'say no to racism' and all this, but at the end of the day, it keeps happening. So, at what point is there going to be a real stand made? [One] that really kinda says — excuse my language — 'no bulls***.'"