In a recent Spanish football match between Villarreal and Barcelona, and in echo of what many believed to be football’s past, a banana was aimed at Brazilian full-back Dani Alves by an opposition supporter as he shaped to take a corner.
The intention was to intimidate, yet the reaction was empowering and drew international praise. Alves, his eyes clearly fixed on the job in hand and without hesitation, picked up, peeled and took a bite from the banana, before launching his cross into the Villarreal penalty box, apparently unaffected by the incident. Many in the stands would have overlooked the incident as it took place so quickly.
Alves has experienced similar incidents during his 12 years in Spain, with Sevilla and Barcelona. His choice to take control of the situation and make a pro-active stand revealed much about his character. However, it was the backing of team-mates, including compatriot Neymar, which seized the initiative.
Neymar posted a picture of himself on Twitter biting a banana with the caption, “we are all monkeys, we are all the same.” Other players including Sergio Aguero and Mario Balotelli followed, prompting a social media campaign, which showed solidarity with Alves’ actions and raised awareness of the challenges faced. Neymar, prior to joining Barça from Brazil’s Santos, was reportedly concerned about the subject and eager to prepare himself for all eventualities. In what may prove to be a watershed moment in how we challenge racism in sport and society, the campaign he helped to launch, shone light on an issue that too often may be brushed under the carpet.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who had previously called for players to get on with the game and suggested that “shaking hands” and forgetting about it was the right response, reacted by promising “zero-tolerance” of racism at this summer’s World Cup, in what may be seen as a change in tact by the sport’s governing body.
Across Europe, the challenge has been brought into sharp focus by instances such as; Kevin Prince Boateng of AC Milan walking off the pitch during a friendly match in Italy. When England U21 players were subjected to monkey chants in Serbia in 2012 it prompted a reaction from UEFA that many described as too lenient. The £65k fine handed to the Serbian FA by UEFA was described as “paltry” and “inadequate” in the UK.
For many supporters of the beautiful game in the UK, racism (on the terraces at least) is an issue confronted in a bygone era. Early generations of black footballers received similar treatment to Alves. Attitudes and mindsets have changed and English football has on the surface tackled the question with high profile campaigns including; “Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football” raising awareness and challenging perceptions of what is deemed acceptable behaviour. On the pitch, there still appears to be work to be done, as cases such as Nicolas Anelka’s quenelle gesture and the John Terry v Anton Ferdinand/Patrice Evra v Luis Suarez affairs have highlighted.
There is a wider sporting context. In America, the NBA has moved swiftly to distance itself from Donald Sterling, owner of LA Clippers basketball team, after he was taped making racist comments about African Americans. In ending his association with the sport, the NBA set a precedent for authorities to act decisively. The response suggests that sport’s governing bodies are finally taking the issue on.
Racism is a challenge that crosses international borders, it is a human issue and whilst appropriate sanctions and deterrents are required, only increased awareness and education will lead to change in the long run. Through role-models like Dani Alves on the pitch, perhaps a change in mindset can be achieved from it.
How will recent examples, such as the Dani Alves case, influence sporting industries to better understand and confront the issue of racism? How can the actions of sportsmen effect change in wider society?