In a January 3, 2013 match at lower league Pro Patria, AC Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng walked off the field of play after being subjected to 25 minutes of racist chanting from a section of the home crowd, including monkey noises and name-calling.
Though he’d always ignored such crude racial stereotyping in the past, he suddenly picked up the ball, threw it in the direction of his abusers, and stormed off the pitch. His teammates followed him.
The game was suddenly over, but Boateng’s actions made headline news around the globe and plunged football’s authorities into crisis management mode.
While Boateng’s actions were applauded by some and criticized by others, there’s no denying his walk-off protest marked a pivotal moment in soccer’s battle against racism.
As recently as 2011 FIFA president Sepp Blatter told CNN that on-field racism didn’t exist in football, and reacted to Boateng’s actions by warning clubs they risked forfeiting matches if there is a repeat of the walk-off. Blatter has been frequently criticized for years for his stance on racism.
But Blatter later insisted he’d been misinterpreted, and that he was committed to fighting racism in both football and society.
Boateng’s walk-off propelled world soccer’s governing body into decisive action. They formed a task force against racism and discrimination, and invited Boateng to join ahead of its first meeting on May 6.
The group set up proposals where any player or official found guilty of racism could be banned for five matches, while teams could be docked points, expelled from competition, or even relegated for persistent offenses.
Those recommendations were ratified at FIFA’s recent congress in Mauritius and were hailed by the task force’s head Jeffrey Webb as a “defining moment” in soccer’s fight against racism.
Boateng also received an invitation to the United Nations, where he told the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that racism was a “dangerous disease.”
UEFA, European football’s governing body, went even further than FIFA, implementing a minimum 10-match ban for racist abuse by players or officials and escalating measures for clubs including fines and stadium closures for repeat offenders.
After years of mixed messages from the top, it appears there is now a willingness to launch an assault on the outdated attitudes that still infiltrate the modern game.
Should the victory over racism be eventually won, many will point to the events of January 3 as a turning point.
“I think we should not accept and tolerate racism anywhere, in any game, whether it’s a friendly game or a World Cup final or it’s a Champions League final,” said Boateng. Image/AP