“Race,” Racism and Euro 2012

“Race,” Racism and Euro 2012[i]

Elena Chou

Like all major sports tournaments, Euro 2012 was marked by both surprises (the Netherlands not making it past the group stage despite being one of the favourites to win the tournament) and disappointments (England being eliminated on penalty kicks yet again).  However, Euro 2012 was especially noteworthy due to the spate of racist incidents making headlines throughout the tournament, at times overshadowing many of the games themselves.  Issues of “race” and racism had emerged even before Euro 2012 began with the late May broadcast of the BBC Panorama documentary Stadiums of Hate, in which investigative reporters spoke to neo-Nazi football hooligans in Poland and Ukraine and witnessed attacks on racialized fans in the stands where police and security did nothing.  In this program, former England captain Sol Campbell advised English fans to avoid travelling to Ukraine and Poland, and even questioned why UEFA had awarded Euro 2012 to these countries given their fans’ history of racism.  It was also revealed that the families of black English team members Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had decided against travelling to the tournament for fears of encountering racist violence.

A cursory glance at some of the racist incidents that occurred during Euro 2012 is most shocking for how explicit and overt the acts were.  The Netherlands team had complained to UEFA about monkey noises directed at the team’s black players during a training session in Krakow, Poland.  The Russian, Spanish and Croatian football associations were all fined for their fans’ racial abuse of opposing black players during their teams’ respective matches: the Czech Republic’s Theodor Gebre Selassie was targeted by Russian fans and Italy’s Mario Balotelli by Spanish and Croatian fans.  The German football association was fined after some fans unfurled a neo-Nazi flag during their team’s match against Denmark.  There were reports that British police investigated racist threats made against Ashley Young and Ashley Cole, the two English players who missed their penalty kicks in their quarterfinal match against Italy and who both incidentally happen to be black.  An Italian newspaper published a cartoon depicting Balotelli as King Kong after Italy’s quarterfinal defeat of England, and another paper made a racially insensitive remark in reference to Balotelli after Italy’s semifinal defeat of Germany in which he scored both Italian goals in spectacular fashion.

Neo-nazis at Euro 2012 – an all-too-common image. (Photo: Reuters)

The racism at Euro 2012 is reflective of the history of racism in various European football leagues.  Many black players, such as Cameroonian international Samuel Eto’o, have repeatedly threatened to walk off the pitch during matches if they encounter any racist abuse from fans.  Not only does racism exist amongst fans, but it is also found amongst teams and on the management level.  In 2004, then Spanish national coach Luis Aragones was fined by UEFA for calling French player Thierry Henry, the Primera Liga teammate of a Spanish player whom he was coaching, a “black shit.”  The Dutch national team has a history of racial tension, with accusations of racism made by players of Surinamese origin against white Dutch players, coaches and management, most famously at Euro 1996 and World Cup 1998.  England’s John Terry has also been accused of uttering racial slurs during an English Premier League match late last year, the controversy of which cost him the England captaincy for Euro 2012.

Responses to racism at Euro 2012

Responses by UEFA to racism at Euro 2012 have been decidedly mixed.  Although UEFA claims to take a hardline stance against racism, it has been accused of treating racist behaviour less seriously than other more minor infractions.  For example, while the Croatian football association was fined $100,000 for its fans racially abusing Italian striker Balotelli, Danish player Niklas Bendtner was fined $125,000 and banned for a competitive match for displaying the logo of an unofficial sponsor after scoring against Portugal.  This highlights the skewed priorities of UEFA, in which acts of racism are punished less severely than violating the sanctity of marketing contracts.  Commenting on UEFA’s refusal to further investigate the monkey noises directed at the Dutch team’s black players, Netherlands captain Mark van Bommel stated that “[you] need to open your ears.  If you did hear it, and don’t want to hear it, that is even worse.”  The relatively weak punishments meted out by UEFA for racial abuse have been heavily criticized across the board by football fans, anti-racist organizations, the media and officials from various European football associations alike.

UEFA president Michel Platini has affirmed that while referees at the tournament have been empowered to stop a match should there be racist abuse directed at players, players who themselves choose to walk off the pitch without permission from the referee because of said abuse are subject to a yellow card.  While fines are the primary method of punishment for racial abuse during a match, points deduction from future UEFA matches is also an option as is playing behind closed doors (i.e. banning fans from a particular team from watching a match), although the latter two harsher penalties have not been enacted for any of the violations at Euro 2012.

Higher governing bodies in football have also been sending mixed messages about the seriousness in which they perceive and deal with racism.  Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, claimed in an interview with CNN on November 2011 that “there is no racism” in football and that, according to a subsequent interview with Al Jazeera English, incidents of racism between players during a match can simply be forgotten afterwards and resolved with a handshake.  His comments drew widespread condemnation from players, managers and heads of various football associations for being ignorant at best and dangerous at worst.  Many have called for Blatter’s resignation, including British Sports Minister Hugh Robertson.

Despite the relatively weak punishments from UEFA for racist incidents at Euro 2012, there are in fact very strong and visible anti-racist and anti-fascist organizations combating racism in football.  Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) operates in conjunction with UEFA, partnering with national level anti-racist organizations to monitor incidents of racism as well as to educate the public on anti-racist actions.  As part of their work, FARE organizes both direct and symbolic actions, such as the reading of diversity statements by team captains before matches.  For Euro 2012, FARE partnered with the Never Again Association, an anti-fascist organization based in Poland.  Players who have been the target of racist abuse on the pitch have also taken action: in 2005, initiated by French player Thierry Henry, Nike sponsored the Stand Up Speak Up campaign alongside FARE, which featured all of Nike’s sponsored football players promoting diversity and anti-racism in media advertisements and during matches.

Team captains for Spain and Portugal read diversity statements before their semifinal match at Euro 2012. (Photo: Sportsfile)

The issue of racism in European football is so widespread that almost all football playing nations in Europe have national level organizations combating racism in the sport, usually in partnership with local grassroots and/or national anti-racist and anti-fascist groups.  This is in stark contrast to the correspondingly weak degree of attention paid to addressing the latent racism still prevalent in many North American professional sports leagues.  For example, many hockey fans and NHL management still view and treat on and off ice racism against racialized players as isolated incidents and the actions of a few bad apples rather than as reflective of a latent white supremacist culture in hockey.  The NBA also has dress codes that implicitly target black players so as to make the game more palatable to white fans, with prohibited items including “work boots” and “chains, pendants, or medallions worn over the player’s clothes” – items which are often coded as “hip hop” and therefore “black.”

Reconciling “race” with national identity and belonging

In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues that a nation is “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (2006 [1983]: 6).  Further, a nation is “imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” (2006 [1983]: 7).  He adds that “[communities] are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” (2006 [1983]: 6).  In other words, the nation is a social construct where a sense of unity is achieved through a particular vision or imagining of a community of people.  Though Anderson does not discuss “race” directly in his book, “race” and racism are crucial factors that structure and affect how a nation comes to imagine and mythologize itself as a particular community that exists through, and is constructed by, the simultaneous inclusion and exclusion of certain members.  Thus, determining and enforcing who does and does not belong through practices of “othering” is key to the mobilization of nationalist sentiments in an imagined nation’s public culture.

In Europe over the past century, anti-colonial struggles, the collapse of Soviet communism, structural adjustment programmes in the Global South, multinational corporate incursion into the Global South, and neo-colonial military aggression against various nations in the Global South, among other factors, have resulted in increased global migration primarily from the Global South to the Global North.  While some European national football teams have included players from different ethnic and racial backgrounds for some time, mainly those from former colonies (as is the case with England, France and the Netherlands), other nations which are seeing new and increased waves of immigration now have teams that are increasingly reflective of these patterns.  Such changes have challenged the perceived ethnic and racial composition of particular imagined national communities.

The Czech Republic Euro 2012 team, for example, has a player of mixed Ethiopian and Czech heritage, Theodor Gebre Selassie, whose Ethiopian father arrived as a medical student during the Communist era.  Croatia has a naturalized player of Brazilian heritage, Eduardo, who is now second behind Davor Šuker – hero of the 1998 Croatian World Cup team – in international goals scored for his country.  Italy has two players of black African origin on its current national team, Angelo Ogbonna and Mario Balotelli, the latter of whom has been attracting considerable attention from Italian fans and media throughout the tournament.  Balotelli represents perhaps the most visibly striking example of the internal struggle facing many nations that were once mythologized as having racially and ethnically homogenous imagined communities but must now deal with the increasingly visible presence of racialized people within its borders.

While it is Balotelli’s mercurial personality and bouts of football genius that have been drawing both attention and scorn from fans and observers at Euro 2012 as well as in regular league play, like many other black players in European football, he has been the target of racism both on and off the pitch.  Balotelli has had bananas thrown at him at a bar in Rome and been the recipient of chants in Italian Serie A matches in which he was told that he was not a “real” Italian because of his skin colour.  He has told media that he “will not accept racism at all” and that he would “kill” anyone who threw a banana at him on the street.  Balotelli had also threatened to walk off the pitch if he encountered racism during any of Italy’s Euro matches, an action for which his coach Cesare Prandelli stated his support.

Italian superstar Mario Balotelli responds directly and forecfully to racist taunts.

In Italy, immigrants and racialized persons like Balotelli are “othered” by the Italian state and society, and remain for the most part invisible in its public culture through practices of exclusion and expulsion.  Italian law dictates that immigrant children cannot receive Italian citizenship until their 18th birthday, even those who are Italian-born, so those who may have spent all their lives in Italy cannot even be legally recognized as Italian by the state until then, as was the case with Balotelli who was born in Palermo.  Thus, the latent and manifest racism directed against Balotelli by the Italian media and society highlights the contemporary struggle in Italy on how to reconcile blackness and “race” in a nation that imagines itself as culturally and ethnically “Italian” despite increasing non-white and non-European migration.[ii]

Racialized athletes like Balotelli, because of their precarious and ambiguous status in a particular imagined national community, are “one of us” during moments of triumph yet “othered” when they fail.[iii]  The “black-blanc-beur” French teams that emerged victorious at World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000 were heralded as the penultimate success of French integration, yet when the team collapsed during World Cup 2010 racialized players were blamed for the team’s demise, particularly by the far right.  The French, English, German and Dutch national teams are all composed of players of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, yet in recent years their respective home nations have shifted to the right in terms of their policies and attitudes on multiculturalism and immigration.  The current and former leaders of Britain, France and Germany – David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel respectively – have all publicly declared the “failures” of multiculturalism as well as denounced immigrants, particularly Muslims, as unassimilable and unproductive.  Other supposedly politically and culturally liberal European nations such as Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and Switzerland – all of which have racialized players on their national football teams – have also seen sharp rightward turns on matters of multiculturalism and immigration.  And yet these nations’ football teams rely on the presence and skills of racialized players, although such players may at the same time be perceived and treated as second-class citizens in their own home countries.

In many European nations currently struggling under austerity measures and corporate elite rule, immigrant and racialized communities have been blamed for their country’s social and economic woes and made the direct and brutal targets of violence, all of which is reflected in the attitudes and actions of football fans in the stands.  It is within this particular racist, anti-immigrant, xenophobic political climate and context where we must locate how racial and ethnic minorities – and in turn racialized national athletes like Mario Balotelli – are positioned, represented and received in European national public cultural imaginaries.

Shortly after the final between Italy and Spain, I witnessed a near fight break out at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst between a group of Italian supporters and a group of Spanish supporters.  One of the Italian fans repeatedly screamed “get out of my country!” – in reference to Canada – in English to the group of Spanish fans, who spoke and responded in Spanish.  This Italian fan clearly felt that as a Canadian he was more entitled to be in Canada than the Spanish fans whom he “othered” as foreign and therefore undesirable.  Incidents like this serve as a stark reminder of how international sporting events like Euro or the World Cup bring out nationalist euphoria and patriotic fevers that can easily become racialized or xenophobic, even amongst fans in supposedly liberal and tolerant multicultural societies such as Canada.  Because of the ways in which “race” and racism are mobilized in, and reflective of, both national and sporting cultures, we can see how sports are not simply mindless entertainment, but are rather inherently political.

The beauty of football is that like all other sports it has the power to unite across racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious lines, yet at the same time it can also be used as a vehicle for sowing hatred and division along those very same lines.  The increasing diversity of European national football team rosters reflects the realities of an increasingly multicultural and multiethnic Europe.  To some, this is a very welcome sight.  For others, as the presence of far right political parties and racist football fans indicate, this is something that must be fought at all costs.  The overwhelming public outrage over the racism displayed at Euro 2012 and the discussions that they have produced among fans and officials reiterate the fact that the majority of us remain vigilant and committed to the fight against racism in football so that indeed it does remain the “beautiful game.”

Elena Chou is a Ph.D student in Sociology at York University who spends far too much time consuming and criticizing media and popular cultural texts.


Anderson, Benedict (2006 [1983]).  Imagined Communities.  New York:  Verso.


[i] “Race” is placed in quotation marks because the concept of “race” is recognized by many social scientists to be a social construct and therefore not real, although its effects are real.

[ii] A similar debate on the definition of “Italian-ness” emerged during the Miss Italia pageant of 1997 in which Denny Mendéz, a black Italian of Caribbean descent, was declared the winner despite strident objections from two of the pageant judges.

[iii] We witnessed a similar phenomenon in Canada during the 1988 Summer Olympics in which Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was celebrated as a “Canadian” national hero when he beat American rival Carl Lewis in the 100 meter final, yet racialized and othered as a “Jamaican” or “Jamaican-Canadian” when he was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for steroid use.

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8 Responses to “Race,” Racism and Euro 2012

  1. Ivan Montiel says:

    good stuff! sad but true that racism still does exist 😦

    • Ele,na says:

      Thanks, Ivan. It was indeed very upsetting to see the how overt and regular the racism at Euro 2012 was, as is the racism that we often hear taking place at regular European football league play.

    • Elena says:

      Thanks, Ivan. It was indeed very sad and upsetting to see how overt and regular the racism at Euro 2012 was, as is the racism that we hear often taking place in regular European football league play.

  2. Asma says:

    Very well written and insightful article.

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  4. mattventresca says:

    Very solid piece here, Elena. I happened to be in Italy throughout most of the elimination round and finals and it was quite interesting to witness how Italian nationals viewed and talked about Balotelli…judging from what I saw and heard, I think your reference to Ben Johnson is a good one. What was interesting, however, was that following their loss to Spain, the Italian team was formally recognized in a ceremony by President Giorgio Napolitano at the Quirinale Palace in Rome and it was Balotelli, rather than veteran (and more traditionally Italian) players like Pirlo or Buffon, who was front in centre in most of the coverage of this event. In fact, Napolitano used Balotelli’s performance as a metaphor for how Italy can move forward and reform some of its “outdated” political practices…
    A lot of interesting things to ponder here…great post!

    • Elena says:

      Thanks so much, Matt. Wow, that’s interesting to hear that Balotelli was highlighted in favour of other more veteran or “traditionally Italian” players, *especially* Pirlo and Buffon! At the same time, however, it also doesn’t surprise me to hear how racialized players like Balotelli are used as tools or pawns by certain political factions to support particular political ideologies when it suits them – I seem to recall Angela Merkel making a comment during Euro 2012 about how the success of the German team (before their elimination in the semi-final) was representative of the success of German “multikulti,” even though she had bashed multiculturalism only a year and a half earlier! I’m very cynical about how much the success of racialized athletes actually affects “real” change against racism and xenophobia in their home countries, as I keep thinking back to the very vicious and visceral ways in which the racialized players of the French team were publicly attacked by the French media and public after their rather ignominious elimination at World Cup 2010. I’m willing to bet good money that if France had won the World Cup that year that these same players would have been feted as national heroes by those very same people bashing them.

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