The emptiness of "Just say no": How FIFA's anti-racism rhetoric failed black players, Brazilians
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The emptiness of "Just say no": How FIFA's anti-racism rhetoric failed black players, Brazilians

It was easy to miss, buried among the endless advertisements for World Cup sponsors that scrolled across the edge of the field during each match (who knew that “I’m lovin’ it” translates to “I love all this a lot” in Portuguese?). Still, it made an occasional appearance: SAY NO TO RACISM, the block letters popping up behind the sweaty, exhausted footballers, who wore the same phrase on a patch sewn to their jerseys.

In a sport that struggles mightily with racism among fans, in stadiums where black players are subject to monkey chants and bananas thrown from the stands, with governing entities that are so slow to respond that players have staged walkouts in protest, the equivalent of “just say no” may seem like a bit of a cop-out.

But FIFA, global football’s governing body, promised it would be different this time. This World Cup was taking place in Brazil, a staggeringly diverse country with residents who can trace their ancestry in every direction. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said this would be the “anti-racism” World Cup. The message, it seemed, was clear, and this time, the world of football was going to shout it.

In the end, though, there was hardly a whisper. Though players stood smiling for photos behind blue “say no” banners, racist chants were heard at Russia and Croatia matches, fans hoisted right-wing banners in the stands and a few particularly creative types decided to attend the Germany-Ghana first-round match in blackface. And these were just the incidents captured when the cameras were looking.

say no to racism

Fans of Brazil’s Cruzeiro display a banner with the “Say No to Racism” slogan in Portuguese during a match against a Chilean team in Belo Horizonte. Photo: AP Photo/Eugenio Savio

Organizational Failings

Despite all its rhetoric, FIFA did little to crack down on what was unfolding in the stands. The president of FIFA himself, Sepp Blatter, admitted as much in a July 14 press conference, saying he was unhappy with the way the organization responded to incidents documented during the tournament.

Jeffrey Webb, CONCACAF president and the head of FIFA’s anti-racism task force for the World Cup, said he was disappointed with the organization’s failure to hire staff trained to take note of discriminatory and abusive incidents in stadiums, despite a proposal presented to FIFA officials that would have called for three such staff members at each match. Webb said there was a “disconnect” between his task force and FIFA’s disciplinary entity.

“There is absolutely no reason why at this World Cup we don’t have anti-discrimination officers here doing proper investigations, proper reporting,” Webb said. “We at FIFA and the local organizing committee should be doing a much better job.”

The incidents didn’t only happen in the confines of the stadiums, or come from lowly hooligans, though.

The airline KLM, Dutch actress and UNICEF ambassador Nicolette van Dam and the personal secretary of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto all tweeted offensive images mocking stereotypes of their national teams’ opponents over the course of the tournament. The results? KLM retracted the photo; van Dam eventually bowed to pressure and resigned from her UNICEF post; and the Mexican secretary said his account was hacked.

Problem solved.

Faces in the Crowd

Even in the months leading up to the World Cup, FIFA was already facing accusations that its actions didn’t quite live up to its slogans.

In November 2013, during the planning process for the event, major Brazilian television network Globo suggested two popular Afro-Brazilian soap stars as potential MCs for the group stage draw telecast. Instead, FIFA chose the white couple Fernanda Lima and Rodrigo Hilbert. The decision was widely criticized and many accused FIFA of overt racism in passing over Afro-Brazilian presenters for an event occurring in the state with the country’s largest Afro-descendant population.

Just as Afro-Brazilian faces were largely missing in the months of promotion leading up to the tournament, they were similarly absent at the matches themselves. Local fans in attendance were overwhelmingly white, an odd sight in a country where more than 50 percent of the population identifies as black or mixed-race.

Yet it’s understandable, given that black Brazilians are disproportionately represented among the country’s poor and underemployed. For the 41 percent of black and mixed-race Brazilians that earn a minimum wage (about $330 a month), the tickets, which sold for anywhere between $90 and $1,000, were entirely out of reach.

Brazil fans

There were few black Brazilians in the crowds of local fans that filled the World Cup stadiums. Photo: AP Photo/Martin Meissner

Educafro, an organization that works for racial equality in Brazil, wrote to FIFA prior to the World Cup, requesting that a percentage of low-cost tickets be set aside to allow greater numbers of black Brazilians to attend the events. FIFA’s secretary-general, Jerome Valcke, responded that the organization felt its efforts through select ticket donation and lottery sales were sufficient to ensure that every fan had an equal opportunity.

“The biggest portion of tickets were sold through lotteries, making the chances equal and fair for every Brazilian or foreign fan,” Valcke wrote in his response. “FIFA has created conditions for everyone who is interested, in every social class, to watch the games.”

Looking Ahead

Now that the book is closed on Brazil, FIFA will turn its attention to the next World Cup host site: Russia, which hardly has a spotless history of its own when it comes to minority groups or black football players. In October 2013, Manchester City’s Yaya Touré, who is from the Ivory Coast, was the target of racist chanting by CSKA Moscow fans during a match between the two teams. After the incident, Touré suggested that black players might boycott the 2018 Cup if Russia does not improve its response to abusive crowds and discriminatory behavior directed toward players.

Blatter says he has already talked to Russian President Vladimir Putin about making the issue a priority for the 2018 Cup. FIFA will undoubtedly roll out a new slogan, a new task force, new initiatives. Maybe this time there will even be officials stationed in the stands, as Webb, the task force official, wanted.

Maybe this time, it will be different. But most black players are probably not holding their breath.