Racism and the World Cup
NEAL CONAN, host:
The World Cup is not only the most important sports event in the world. For most people around the world, it may be the most important event period. The soccer tournament gets underway in Germany on Friday. Brazil is favored, but any number of European teams could win, and some like the chances of outsiders from places as unlikely as Africa or even the United States.
There is an important rules change for this year's tournament. FIFA, the international federation that controls the tournament and the sport around the world, has banned racist displays by players and coaches. Jeremy Schaap, of ESPN, did a story about this for the sports network's show Outside The Lines and a version of that was played on SportsCenter, as well. Jeremy Schaap joins us on his way to Pennsylvania Station in New York, where he's about to get on a train. Jeremy, nice to speak with you again.
Mr. JEREMY SCHAAP (Reporter, ESPN): Neal, thanks for having me on the show.
CONAN: And when I say racist displays, I was amazed to see in your story-tape of incidents of taunting, racial abuse, fascist salutes.
Mr. SCHAAP: It's really stunning when you see, firsthand, the kinds of things that go on routinely in European soccer stadiums; the kind of behavior that simply isn't tolerated in the United States. Mostly black players are subjected to these kinds of taunts and slurs. It's not uncommon to have bananas showered upon them. Things that are just really, at this point, inconceivable in American sports.
CONAN: There was tape of one famous soccer coach, one of the great teams in Europe, telling one of his players exactly how to taunt a black player.
Mr. SCHAAP: Yes. Exactly. Eighteen months ago Luis Aragones who, at the time, was the national team coach of Spain - and remains the national team coach of Spain - is seen exhorting on tape one of his players, a player named Jose Reyes, to go after that black piece of blank, referring to Thierry Henry, who's one of the best players in the world and who was about to play Spain in a World Cup qualifier. Henry is a Frenchman. And Aragones, you know, - the kind of behavior that I think we can say, at this point in the United States, would, at the very minimum, get him dismissed from his job, if not banned from the sport entirely, was nominally fined a few thousand dollars.
CONAN: And seemed to think that there was nothing wrong with this. That this was all part of the game.
Mr. SCHAAP: Well, certainly that was the prevailing attitude in Spain and throughout much of European soccer. That, you know, this is no big deal. That, you know, we can freely use racial epithets, I should say, as motivating tools, as a way to get under the skin, so to speak, of opposing players. This is all part and parcel of the game.
And you would - of course, though, the victims see it quite differently and they do allow it to really bother them. And, in fact, some of the most publicized incidents over the last several months involve players who just couldn't take it anymore. Players like Samuel Eto'o from Barcelona, Mark Zoro from Messina, who literally picked up the ball and threatened to walk off the field and stop the game because he just couldn't take being abused anymore.
CONAN: FIFA, which is the international organization, you reported had been reluctant, thinking that this was under the jurisdiction of national institutions. But it's different for the World Cup.
Mr. SCHAAP: Well, you know, FIFA's had the power ever since the beginning to do things about this because national federations are all subject to FIFA's rules and regulations. But they've been reluctant to do so and it's a complicated issue. Many of these openly fascist and racist fans are the most loyal supporters of certain teams. And teams have been reluctant to get them out of the stadiums, because they represent a lot of money. But the FIFA, acting under pressure and in the wake of all these incidents, announced rules in March saying players, fans, coaches, officials, of teams who engage in racist conduct will be penalized points in the standings - which is, you know, where you can really hit them hard. But in the World Cup, these rules will not apply to fans.
CONAN: Penalized points in the standings. This might force teams out of the World Cup if players or coaches are involved in this. I have to say, I saw the piece that you did, and you seemed skeptical with the idea that the FIFA would actually enforce this.
Mr. SCHAAP: Well, I am skeptical about exactly how much they would enforce it. And I think most people who have followed international soccer are skeptical, because FIFA has a habit of making grand pronouncements and then not following through. And in particular, when Sepp Blotter - who is the President of FIFA and arguably the most powerful person in sports in the world - told me, when I asked him what would happen if fans did shout racial epithets at players during the World Cup. He told me they would stop the game, close up the stadium, kick all the fans out, you know. I can't help but think he's being melodramatic, and wasn't being entirely sincere.
CONAN: And is there any indication from what you've been able to see that the National Federation's worried about their - the prospect of losing points or even having stadiums closed as you suggest - are talking to their players about modifying their behavior?
Mr. SCHAAP: At this point, there's no indication that really anything has changed. You know, all the rules just went into effect. They would really affect standings in the beginning of the season in the fall. Certainly, you know, EuroCup qualifying is going to come up soon. It's another few years away until we qualify for the next World Cup. But they're going to have to take it seriously if FIFA actually acts and follows through. And it's going to mean a lot. And it's not just about, you know, getting to the World Cup.
You know, as you know, in soccer, it's not like our systems here in pro sports. If you finish in the bottom three in your league, that's usually the number you are relegated to a miner league, in effect. And that could happen to teams as a result of being found guilty of any of these infractions.
CONAN: We will watch and see what happens in the course of the World Cup.
Jeremy Schaap, we hope you make your train, though the prospect of Amtrak leaving early, unlikely, I think.
Mr. SCHAAP: Exactly, Neal. Thanks a lot.
CONAN: Jeremy Schaap, of ESPN's Outside the Lines, author of the book Cinderella Man, joining us on his cell phone on the way to a train station in New York City.
And when we come back, the steroid scandal in baseball.
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