During recess on the first day of school in grade 6, I ran to the gravel field as I had done every day in grade 5 and 4 to kick around a ball with my classmates. When I arrived, there was the same group of boys I’d played with the past two years and they told me, in no uncertain terms, that I couldn’t play because I was a girl.
I turned, silently burning with humiliation, and went somewhere else, and eventually found the school basketball courts. And the world was good again – better, in fact.
I never took to soccer again, either as a player or spectator.
Fast-forward twenty years. I always knew European soccer – hereafter football – had a racism problem. Its fans are neanderthals, its base – well, base. I didn’t give much thought to it until recently when I read about England’s 6-0 win in Sophia against Bulgaria amid terrible racist abuse from the fans towards the English players, including Nazi salutes and monkey chants. I couldn’t and still can’t really understand why a whole sport is so deeply and so systemically corrupted by racist fans. Like… huh?? More incomprehensible to me is how the average football fan can stomach the racism in their favourite game and pastime. Willful ignorance, I suppose.
I recently asked my white male German friend – a Werder Bremen fan – how a person can support professional football in Europe with a clean conscience.
“You can’t,” he said.
The fans of the local team here are particularly right-wing. I barely even know what that means. I just have this visceral fear and loathing of football hooliganism – I imagine fans to be racist, misogynistic, violent and hysterical. I imagine them to be drunk, loud, white, and male. In my mind they’re simply a mass of people I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near, even in broad daylight.
My friend continued: “I would not go to a game with you.”
We occasionally go to local basketball and handball games together.
“Because of potential stupid remarks…”
I can’t remember his exact wording, but it was a punch in the gut. I know I’m an ethnic minority and I’m occasionally reminded of it in non-threatening ways (e.g. strangers asking me out of the blue where I’m from), but this was… this felt like an attack; it made me feel threatened somehow. In my mind I was suddenly transported to the potential scenario of being at a football game with my friend, standing in the stadium, and being on the receiving end of “stupid remarks”.
By “stupid” I assume he means racist and misogynistic – something related to my being an Asian female, I’d expect.
You know what disturbed me most about his comment, though? It wasn’t the thought of racism in the stadium (this I was already aware of). It was the ambiguity of whether his unwillingness to go to a game with me was because he didn’t want me to hear those potential stupid remarks or because he didn’t want to hear those potential stupid remarks. It was not clear to me at all whether he wanted to shield me from racist remarks or protect himself from being uncomfortable. God forbid he’d have to feel embarrassed in front of me.
After telling me more about his experience with the local team, he seemed to shrug it off. “Maybe it’s not that bad, maybe I’m making too big of a deal out of it. You should go to a game!”
I noticed he didn’t say we should go together.
Punch in the gut. I felt isolated in my difference. You know what they say: With friends like these…