Mark Keohane, writing for The Cape Times and IOL Sport
Among football’s finest players made the most compelling statement that they won’t tolerate racism in the sport when French giants PSG and Turkey’s Istanbul abandoned their Champions League match because a Romanian fourth official referred to a member of Istanbul’s coaching staff as a ‘negro’.
This was the most emphatic actioning of ‘no to racism’ in football.
There are so many words uttered, campaigns screened and lip service given to the fight against racism in football.
Too often, it is just words but in Paris earlier this week, we finally saw a soccer brotherhood stand tallest and defy anyone who indulged in racism.
What made the statement even more damning against those who can’t identify with their own racism, was that PSG’s response was not because one of their players or coaching staff had been wrong and insulted but because a human being had been insulted and wronged.
The Romanian fourth official Sebastian Coltescu defended his use of the word by saying it was not derogatory and that in it translated to his identifying a player as a ‘black’ player.
Anti-racist activists in Romania condemned the use of the word and said it was racist, inappropriate and should never have been uttered.
The players involved in the match felt the same, which is why they immediately protested by way of walking off and refusing to return.
It was the most dramatic and relevant response because there was no post-match bullishness or post-match outrage or action taken in hindsight. The players acted in the moment.
Coltescu identified Istanbul Basaksehir’s assistant Pierre Webo as ‘the black one over there. Go and check who he is. The black one over there. It is not possible to act like that.’
Coltescu was speaking to the referee and referring to former Cameroon striker Pierre Webo, who had previously shown his dissatisfaction from the touchline about an on-field decision.
Webo’s reaction to Coltescu was a retort more than a response: ‘Why did you say negro?’
Istanbul’s substitute forward Demba Ba added: ‘You never say ‘this white guy’, you say ‘this guy’, so why when you mention … listen to me … so why when you mention a black guy (do) you have to say ‘this black guy?’
The support for PSG and Istanbul’s decision to leave the field after 14 minutes and not return was globally unanimously supported by players, officials, managers and footballing authorities. Supporters, predictably, were divided based on their stance for or against racism.
Former Liverpool and England international turned soccer analyst John Barnes defended the fourth official and felt that he had done nothing wrong.
Barnes, who is black, said he would also have identified Webo as the ‘black one’ because the other assistant coaches were white.
Barnes, who for the past two decades has often been described by his critics as wanting to be white and an ‘uncle Tom’ to conservative whites, took a beating on social media for not appreciating the sensitivity of the situation or how the action of the fourth official contradicted football’s fight against racism.
Jose Mourinho described the moment the players left the field as ‘iconic’ as football looks to rid the sport of racism.
‘It is a very sad situation and every form of racism has to be fought. It is never accepted. I’m very sad because we don’t want that in football,’ said Mourinho, whose Tottenham side currently leads the English Premier League.
He added: ‘Everyone in football and society, we have our responsibilities in relation to these situations and if we make mistakes, we have to accept the responsibilities.
‘But more important for me is that the game becomes iconic. Champions League, to stop after 15 minutes for a very sad reason, will become iconic and hopefully, in the future, it never happens again.
PSG’s two most celebrated strikers Kylian Mbappe and Neymar were quick to react on the field and also used their social media influence to condemn any form of racism on the field.
Mbappe told the referee the game could not continue because of the obvious prejudice of the fourth official.
And on social media, he tweeted: ‘SAY NO TO RACISM …. M.WEBO WE ARE WITH YOU’. More than 325 000 people liked the tweet and 47 000 retweeted.
Neymar tweeted: ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ and 400 000 endorsed his sentiment on the like button and 45 000 retweeted.
Barnes was the lone black voice in not seeing why so many in the professional football playing community were horrified.
The match continued the next night and Neymar scored a hattrick and Mbappe got a double.
Nowhere, in match reports or match analysis did I read Mbappe described as the ‘black goalscorer’ and I certainly didn’t hear any commentator refer to him being ‘black’ when he scored.
The only description of Mbappe was of his brilliance as a footballer.
And so, it should be, just like it should have been when there were many other ways to identify Webo other than singling him out ‘as the black guy’.