This week, the US national soccer team won a fabulous underdog victory over the most powerful team in the world from Spain 2-0. The US team was at the height of its play, the Spanish team at a low ebb. Play this game 50 more times and perhaps the US would win once or twice again. It is rare that an American team has this possibility (in the Olympics, the coverage of the US "overdog" has been often entirely chauvinistic). As George Vecsey wrote in the New York Times, this was the greatest victory in US soccer history, even surpassing the defeat of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics.
But the beautiful game, the game every boy in the world learns to play at an early age, kicking soccer balls in every free moment – hiking along a forest trail in Mallorca, for example, the sons of a friend of mine taught my son Sage then four, the wonders of soccer, and he became a soccer player for a number of years and will always be a fan) – is, in Europe, one of the breeding grounds for racism. A few weeks ago, Spain’s coach Luis Zaragones was caught on film instructing one of his players to go after a black player, one of the best in the world, as a lesser being. When an outcry occurred, Zaragones announced that he was “friends” with Roma and blacks. He was just using a motivational tactic. The 1948 UN Convention against Genocide made advocacy of racism – standing up in a black shirt, for example – a crime. But Franco lasted till 1975 in Spain. Even in the new and vibrant democratic Spain, many – as Zaragones reveals – simply breathe racism. It is who they are, and they must be shocked – through nonviolent resistance - out of it. It was vengeance for the black players from the US – and for anti-racists everywhere - that the Americans defeated this (within elite soccer) monster.*
Taunted with racist chants from the fans, jeers from the opposing players, and even bananas thrown on the field (soccer is an excuse for mass displays of naked racism in Europe), Zoro, a great player from Camerooon took up the ball and walked off. There is now a campaign against racism in European soccer. Brilliant players have done ads against racism, calling on decent fans to rise up, promoted by Nike – very much to the corporation’s credit, a result produced by the enormous change in the United States in the last 40 years**. But the situation is extreme. Right wing parties, often in the government, crusade against immigrants from Morocco (Spain) or Pakistan and other African countries (Greece). Smaller parties, sometimes in the government as in Italy, have, open fascist sympathies, Though there is a fight about it, being a soccer fan is now an education in racism. Being a soccer fan is, in essence, to be internationalist (it is the world's sport). In Europe, it needs to be transformed into an education in fighting racism.
A well-known Italian soccer player gave fans the Mussolini salute. ESPN did a video on “the beautiful game turned ugly” which has all of these incidents here. This video is especially worth taking in.
That ESPN did this story and that the New York Times and the mainstream press did not pick it up reveals the political emptiness – the enabling of reaction – of the media (it is the same reason why a person interested in the news would learn more from the Daily Show or the Colbert Report than from reading or watching the corporate news media). The world cup (FIFA) officials will take action, they say, against players and coaches, but not against the fans. Since Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi is quite near to Mussolini in political orientatin and the government now organizes abuses and roundups of the Roma, these are hardly just events within soccer. Two weeks ago I posted on the Karmanlis’ government in Greece’s response to rising democracy by sending out trucks to round up homeless immigrants to take them to camps (see here).
America was saved from the worst of this by the civil rights movement. One owes to Martin Luther King and to black and white student anti-racists, and to Malcolm X, and to the rebellions in American cities, and to black workers and anti-racist whites who organized campaigns going back to the 1930s about the Scottsboro boys and Angelo Herndown, the revolution in the segregated South and throughout the country, the diminishing of the Ku Klux Klan. Just 62 years ago, Jackie Robinson broke into major league baseball and was greeted by endless racist abuse. The great players in the Negro Leagues are today just being invited to join the Hall of Fame. No events are greater in American sports than the knock out by Joe Louis of Max Schmeling (the Nazi’s white hope) or the ban on Mohammed Ali for opposing the Vietnam War.
Today most of the world – outside of right-wing Israelis who are sadly mainstream and a considerable number* - celebrates American democracy for electing Barack Obama, forty years from the assassination of King. Europeans liked Obama in polling about 8 to 1 over McCain (in this respect, there are plenty of decent people in Europe). And American racism is real and virulent. Yet its power to place the Republicans in power – the Southern strategy of Nixon and Atwater incarnated by Rove - has been broken by their crimes (the aggression in Iraq, torture, the financial crisis) and the emergence of Obama as a political leader who is not tainted by the enabling of all of these corrupt policies by Democratic leaders. The mainstream press and neoconservatives in particular (featured once again on the Washington Post editorial page among many others) display monstrous racism toward Arabs. It is okay to torture any Arab innocent the US government lays its hands on; at least no one should be prosecuted for it, even though American law requires this, Even the New York Times will blather, in so-called reporting, about “enhanced interrogation techniques”which are somehow different from torture when done by the American elite and its agents. Racism, H. Rap Brown, a leader in SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), once said is as American as cherry pie. The civil rights movement of which Brown was a part has helped to make that less overt toward blacks – America is not Europe – and yet anti-Arab racism is now as American as cherry pie. So is the wall to keep out latinos, and continuing horrors including murders along the border. Obama’s speech in Cairo (see here) and actions toward Israel – he has united all the G8 in pressing Israel to freeze the settlements and his emissary George Mitchell is pushing for serious negotiations between Israel and Palestine are a huge step forward. But the abolition of the rule of law in the last administration and the vacillations about law – the noxious appeal to so-called state secrets of the Obama administration to protect the criminals in the Bush administration from investigation and legal consequences – are frightening.
One might look at this film of European decadence in soccer and say: this era is thankfully past in the United States. With the election of Obama, this is, to a large degree, true. And yet the impact of a police state toward Arab-Americans and other Arabs, poisoning the rule of law as a whole, is with us, Stephen Johns, a black man who guarded the Holocaust Museum in Washington can be murdered by a racist (see here). There is an American variant even now to what is shown in Europe. Turn the medal of this ugly coin – and it is we who need to fight for decency.
*I am very grateful to Richard Rockwell for bringing this video to my attention.
**Nike also needs to deflect attention from its longstanding racist abuse of nonwhite people, including children, in its factories in the Philippines, Vietnam and elsewhere.
***Thanks to Ilene Cohen for frightening communications on this point.