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Racist fans worry Sparta

Racist fans worry Sparta

Posted: November 28, 2001

By FrantiSek Bouc

Racist fans worry Sparta

After steep UEFA fine, officials seek way to control the taunting

By FrantiSek Bouc

STAFF WRITER

Before Sparta Praha met Real Madrid in a marquee Champions' League match in Prague, four men made an extraordinary televised plea.

Appearing on an evening news program Nov. 20, Sparta general manager Vlastimil KosEal, head coach Jaroslav Hrebik, and players Jiri Novotny and Martin Hasek, urged fans to stop the racist baiting that had already cost the team a heavy fine from UEFA, European soccer's governing body.

"We certainly need the support of fans to succeed, but taunting opposing players doesn't help us at all," said Novotny, the team captain.

The 11th-hour appeal seemed to bring rambunctious fans to heel - at least temporarily.

When Sparta played Real on Nov. 21 at the city's Letna stadium, a game the home team lost 3-2, the crowd of 20,000 was supportive but never rowdy.

It watched admiringly, often in stunned silence, as Real's two black starters, Brazilian international defender Roberto Carlos and Congolese striker Claude Makelele, displayed their world-class skills.

The Real game was Sparta's first Champions' League match at Letna since UEFA levied a 55,000 Swiss franc ($33,400/12.7 million Kc) fine on the team for racist abuses during an Oct. 10 match against Spartak Moscow, which Sparta won 2-0.

During that contest, Sparta fans repeatedly made chimpanzee noises and shouted ethnic slurs at Robson da Silva, a black Brazilian who plays for the Moscow club.

UEFA, which has been seeking to curb racism throughout Europe, moved hard against Sparta. In addition to the fine, the stiffest ever leveled on a European club for racial slurs, UEFA warned it would not hesitate to "undertake new measures" against what it called "the racist attitude" of Sparta fans.

If the fans didn't restrain themselves, UEFA said in a statement, "Sparta Prague runs the risk of playing a UEFA competition behind closed doors."

"Once again, there has been evidence of behavior that smears the name of football," said UEFA's Chief Executive Gerhard Aigner.

Key funds

For most club teams, the annual Champions' League competition represents a lucrative bounty. The October-to-May tournament pits Europe's top clubs against one another in a group playoff system that generates huge crowds, large-scale media exposure and lavish television revenues.

Champions' League income is vital for small-market, Central European teams like Sparta, making the prospect of "closed-door" games - played in neutral venues with fans barred - a nightmarish possibility.

"The warning we received from UEFA was quite serious," general manager KosEal acknowledged.

Yet officials here also say that racist slurs have been a part of the soccer landscape for years.

Sparta, traditionally this country's most successful team, is backed by dozens of local fan clubs. These clubs, sometimes informally and occasionally through design, "assign" their more rowdy members to heckle and grunt at opposing players.

In 1995, during a UEFA Cup game between Sparta and Italy's AC Milan, fans booed Liberian striker George Weah on every touch. It hardly mattered that Weah was then considered among the world's best players.

In September 1998, when Sparta city rival Slavia hosted Switzerland's FC Luzern in the UEFA Cup, the referee warned Slavia officials he would stop the match unless fans stopped insulting Luzern's black players.

Jean Bertin Akue, who played for FK Teplice of the Gambrinus liga during the 1997-98 season, said he was unable to cope with blatant fan racism he faced on and off the field. He moved on to play in the French second division.

In the same season Akue faced problems, Zimbabwe's Kennedy Chihuri, a midfielder with Viktoria Zizkov, had fruit and beer tossed down on him from the stands by Sparta fans.

"It was unpleasant," Chihuri said, "but I didn't get annoyed - I've come to know what to expect from Sparta fans."

Chihuri, who says fans have improved in recent years, considers the taunting less racially motivated than a tool of fan intimidation.

The debate over racist taunting in soccer is often a heated one, with some fans asserting that racial taunts are no different from any other kind of stadium baiting - intended only to unsettle and discourage opposing players.

Sports psychologist Pavel Slepicka reflects this debate when he explains that animal taunts are racist, but "only to a certain extent."

"Fans are driven by an effort to intimidate the adversary," he said. "Because [Czech] society is not a very multiracial one, dark-skinned players stand out as an easy target."

Privately, however, European Union and soccer officials have expressed fears that European stadiums are becoming an acceptable venue for extreme rightists and skinheads to publicly express racial and religious bias.

Institutional sports organizations such as UEFA and the Czech Soccer Association (CMFS), aware of this concern, are increasingly intolerant of racist abuses.

UEFA has slapped other teams with fines over racist behavior, including Portugal's Boavista. Boavista's fans jeered Liverpool's Emile Heskey during an Oct. 24 match, producing a 22,000 Swiss franc fine.

National federations in Britain and France have funded awareness campaigns as their leagues embraced hundreds of players of Asian, African, Arab and Caribbean descent.

In Italy, a hotbed of fan racism, local teams have been matched against Third World nation clubs in goodwill tournaments. In June, white members of the third-division club Treviso walked on the field with their faces painted black in solidarity with a new Nigerian teammate.

Here, the CMFS has been hiking its fines for racism.

Like psychologist Slepicka, CMFS spokesman Jaroslav Kolar believes that Czech fans simply do not understand or respect the basic tenets of a multiracial society.

Many have not yet accepted social and cultural changes that have brought dozens of African and South American players into elite European leagues during the last two decades.

"We need to be uncompromising in fighting racism in the stands," Kolar said. "Blacks are among the game's best players, and those who don't want to respect that and appreciate that aren't real soccer fans anyway. We need to force them out of the stands."

Fans entering Letna for the Nov. 21 Real game received anti-racism leaflets signed by the club president and the team captain.

The stakes are high for Sparta.

The Real Madrid game was sold out. So are Sparta's next two home games in the competition, against FC Porto of Portugal and Greek team Panathinaikos of Athens. Both matches will be played next spring, after the Champions' League takes its traditional winter break. Tickets that ran from 650-950 Kc were snatched up within three hours of going on sale in early November.

If UEFA declared Letna off-limits to fans, Sparta would be forced to refund millions of crowns. The club would also lose untold amounts of guaranteed television revenue, which UEFA splits among member clubs.

"[Sparta] needs to condemn [racist] behavior as strongly as possible and make sure it doesn't occur in the stands, even by the barring the violators," said UEFA communications director Mike Lee. "Otherwise, Sparta may soon be forced to play behind closed doors."

By FrantiSek Bouc

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