Brazil Lands Yellow Card For Racism — and World Cup Didn’t Even Start Yet

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The first soccer game I ever saw was actually just highlights of the 1970 World Cup Final on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” There was a brief segment, maybe 10 minutes long, featuring a Brazlian named Pele running rings around the Italian defense in a 4-1 triumph. My addiction to the game started then and hasn’t abated.

As much as I love the game, however, I can’t abide some of the nastier aspects of it. The violence on the terraces I experienced in England in the 1980s took the fun out of going to matches. But what appalled me more, and what has persisted long after the worst of the hooligans were imprisoned, is the racism that continues in the soccer world.

It is true that our sports only reflect society at large. That, of course, doesn’t make me feel any better about racism in soccer — it just means there’s a lot of racism in the world, and the fight against it goes on and on. While standing on those terraces at Stamford Bridge hoping not to get hit with an empty beer can, I heard the guys around me making monkey noises whenever a black player got the ball, and the use of the word that rhymes with “bigger” was the default description.

The situation over the past 30 years has not improved enough. Recently, I wrote here about a jackass at Villarreal throwing a banana at Brazil’s Dani Alves, who plays for FC Barcelona, right before a corner kick. Alves handled it beautifully, taking a bite of the banana before taking the kick. But it never should have happened.

Since Brazil is hosting the Cup, racism takes on a special dimension. Like the United States, Brazil is a multi-racial society with a legacy of black slavery. Like the United States, Brazil still has a long way to go in becoming a color-blind society.

Reuters described a recent episode in Brazil, “It was just a regular evening of monkey noises and racial slurs for Brazilian soccer referee Marcio Chagas. Then he left to go home. As he entered the parking lot after overseeing the March 6 state championship game in Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil’s south, the black physical education teacher found his tormentors had vandalized his car and piled bananas on the windshield. One was inserted into the exhaust pipe. ‘I felt offended, like I’d been the victim of violence,’ Chagas, 37, said by telephone from his home in Porto Alegre. ‘It was a cowardly act because I couldn’t defend myself. The jeering is normal. This kind of action was new for me.'”

But that same report noted that Brazil’s overall society has the same stench of racism running through it that America does. “Not a single chief executive officer of a company listed on Brazil’s main stock exchange index is black. Black workers earn about half the average 1,914 reais ($862) per month their white counterparts get, according to statistics institute IBGE. Racism was designated a crime in Brazil in 1988. Luiza Bairros, the only black minister in Rousseff’s cabinet of 39, said the law has changed very little, with very few prosecutions, allowing people to act with impunity. ‘Government institutions reproduce the same standard of invisibility of blacks that you encounter in the rest of society,’ Bairros, minister for the promotion of racial equality, a post created in 2003, said in a May 15 phone interview. ‘You don’t see black people writing for newspapers or directing companies, so it’s more difficult to convince voters to put them into office.'”

Jorge da Silva, a political science professor at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, told the wire service “Brazilians are used to saying that Brazil is a racial democracy: That’s just a myth. If you go to an elegant shopping center you won’t find black people there, not even working. If you board a plane in Brazil you will not see black people working, maybe one or two, let alone as passengers.”

The tournament is a chance to confront all of this. I am not naive enough to think that a month-long soccer tournament is going to change the hearts and minds of very many. At the same time, winning and losing are pretty objective measures of performance, and I know that talent and drive are pretty widely spread across the human race. That’s what sports have been so very successful in removing some of the racism from society — from the greatness of Jackie Robinson to the shame of the Los Angeles Clippers recent events, sports puts this under a microscope for all to see.

I fully expect Brazil to win the World Cup — more importantly, though, I expect the soccer world will avoid shaming itself with barbaric attitudes that never have had any place on the field or off it. We’ll know in about a month.

The World Cup begins Thursday, June 12 and continues until Sunday, July 13.

Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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