While we love to think of soccer as the beautiful game, we have seen its ugly side. For too many of us, the displays of racism or racist chants have plagued our game for decades. It has reared its ugly head in stadiums around the world. No instance may be more infamous than on February 25, 2006 in Zaragoza, Spain, when Real Zaragoza hosted FC Barcelona in a league match.
Zaragoza fans had a history with Barcelona striker Samuel Eto’o, having directed racist taunts at Eto’o in a match the previous year. For that, Real Zaragoza was fined 600 euros, which can’t even count as a slap on the wrist. It obviously did nothing to deter the crowd from doing it again.
Throughout the match, Eto’o had been subjected to periodic verbal abuse by a section of the crowd. He continued to play, but it boiled over in the 77th minute. With the match scoreless, Barcelona was in their attacking end and won a corner. Eto’o collected the ball and had bottles thrown at him before a chorus of monkey chants came from that corner of the crowd. Eto’o sought out Zaragoza defender Alvaro, grabbed his arm and showed it to the crowd as if to show them that he too was black. The abuse continued. The referee ran to the 4th official to demand that an announcement be made over the PA system to stop the racist chanting. At that point, Samuel Eto’o had enough.
“No más! No más! No más!” Samuel Eto’o started to walk off the field, with his entire team, half of Zaragoza’s team, and even the referee attempting to get in his way and convince him to stay on the field. Eto’o wasn’t having it, demanding that he be allowed to leave. After a lengthy discussion involving Eto’o, several players, the referees and then-Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard, Eto’o was convinced to finish the match. Ronaldinho, at the time also on Barcelona, was one of Eto’o’s best friends on the team. He mentioned that when speaking to Eto’o, he said: “We all heard it, [and] if he leaves, then I go as well.” Zaragoza striker Ewerthon stated after the match:
“I’m black too...I’m a Zaragoza player and totally opposed to the fans who did this. I’ve been abused too at other grounds in Spain but we need to rise above this. The Spanish Federation have to start taking proper measures and we as black players also have to act. We are here to work and if things carry on like this it will be impossible.”
Barcelona exploded after that, scoring two goals in the 79th and the 82nd minute to win the match 2-0, but that wasn’t the point. The damage had been done, and Samuel Eto’o’s “No más” was the story around the world.
Scores of fans were quick to denounce the racist behavior of the Zaragoza fans, but there were no real questions on why the focus was on Eto’o’s response to the racist behavior. Why were players trying to keep him in the game? Why wasn’t the match abandoned or the section of fans removed from the stadium? Why wasn’t Zaragoza forced to forfeit or ban those fans for life? We know that many, if not all, of those fans were back in their seats at the next match and the match after that and might still be attending matches today.
February 25, 2006 was an ugly day in soccer history, but we have not learned from that day as a soccer world. That terrible incident has not prompted any real efforts to deter future racist behavior and remove racism from the game. Sure, some teams have had to play matches behind closed doors. Some have been fined. Other teams have shown solidarity with their teammate and abandoned a match. Still, there has to be more done to combat racism in soccer, with harsher penalties.
It starts with everyone. I have been in the stands when a racist taunt was directed at a player on the field. I have been in the stands when a racist taunt was directed at me. In each instance, there were friends and strangers alike who stepped in and made it clear that racist behavior was not going to be tolerated, and the fans were removed from the stadium, never to be allowed back. But, it wasn’t everyone who called for those penalties. For some, zero tolerance means just that. For others, it means a period of removal that can and should end, with the offender eventually being allowed back into the stands like nothing happened. That’s unacceptable. That shows the offended that they may not feel 100% welcome in the stands or at a match or otherwise interwoven with a fanbase. We must do better because when it comes to racism, the offenders should never feel more comfort than the offended.
Racism hasn’t left soccer, despite the best efforts of some. Until there are some truly severe penalties for racist behavior, like the banishment of a team from a tournament, the instant relegation of a team to a lower division, or the banishment of an entire league from continental competitions, this will only continue. The abuse directed at Samuel Eto’o should have marked the end of racism’s tolerance in soccer. We’re still waiting for that end. It’s time for all of soccer to stand up and yell just what Samuel Eto’o did to racism: No. Más.