BY DAVID ONJILI
It is not rare to see some of the most tribal, racist and bigoted individuals claim allegiance to sports teams. These very people, who spew hatred towards others on the basis of our collective differences, come to cheer during games like all is ok.
This is not what sports is about. Sports is about competition but behind that are underlying values of unity, love and above all respect.
The recent murder of George Floyd in the United States of America by a police officer and subsequent nationwide protests has rekindled an already existing debate, one that we as Kenyans are very familiar with. We may not have entrenched racism in Kenya to such Western world proportions, but we have deeply rooted tribalism within us, and in our much beloved sports.
There are small minded people who view players not on the basis of their talent but tribe or even gender. We forget the joy that athletes bring the nation. Look at how united we were as a people when Eliud Kipchoge broke the un-official under two-hour marathon world record.
“Football is based on merit only, not on who you are, where you come from and how you look. That’s a good way to teach the world how we should behave,” ones said Arsene Wenger, former Arsenal FC manager.
It is from these same lenses that many sports lovers view sports. An equalizer in an unequal world, sports should unite and give children the chance to dream big. Yet, the same game is a place where discrimination on race, religion, gender and tribe plays itself out.
In 2007, the Iraqi national soccer team triumphed at the Asian games, and a nation fractured by years of war for once had something to celebrate.
Nelson Mandela and South Africa used the game of rugby in 1995 to remind both South Africans and the world that they were one people. Lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy alongside Captain Francois Pienaar after beating New Zealand, Black South Africans poured into the streets to cheer the victory just like the whites, it reminded a nation that they were and could be one if they chose to. A triumph to the ideal Mandela held and reminder of the power of sports.
Mandela had taken over the country as President in 1994 when the nation was still deeply divided by apartheid. Mandela had won the presidential election, the first in which citizens of all races were allowed to take part, and were therefore also the first held with universal adult suffrage. Mandela’s win had made many whites fear and contemplate relocating from the county.
Yet, sports would provide a monumental avenue. Rugby was a predominantly white man’s game, yet, Mandela the statesman understood the power of the game. He had not only forgiven those who had incarcerated him for 26 years but wanted the nation to follow suit. There were plans to change the name from Springboks and even change the team colours of white and green but Mandela did not allow this. To him, this would interfere with plans to build a rainbow nation.
It is not uncommon to see toxic Kenyan politicians associate themselves with sporting teams in the country. Take Moses Kuria for instance, a divisive, bilious politician who has never shied away from highly toxic tribal remarks. He openly advocates for violence, he mocks and insults those he does not agree with yet he is allowed audience during top soccer games.
In 2015, taking advantage of the financial situation of football side Gor Mahia, he attended a fundraiser and gave some Sh200, 000 as the team prepared for the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA). At the meeting, as reported in the local dailies, he even offered to run for some club position in the elections. He was also present at the Moi International Sports Complex Kasarani when English Premier League side Everton visited to play local side Kariobangi Sharks in the Sportpesa Super Cup. How was he even allowed to do all that?
We live in interesting times globally, the mainstream media has institutionalised tribalism here in Kenya and racism globally. Take for instance how the Daily Mail has constantly treated Raheem Sterling formerly of Liverpool and now a two time league winner with Manchester City. The media plays a very big role in society, they control agenda and this feeds to the masses.
Sterling is a player who has had to overcome adversity to be where he is. Brought up by a single mother who had to change jobs just to keep them sustained, she did odd jobs to put a meal on the table and find shelter for her kids but when Sterling succeeds as a professional footballer and chooses to reward his mother with a house, look at what the media puts up as a headline.
This is not an isolated event, the publication has run several stories intended to bring down a player who has earned his way up there.
The Cameroonian international needs no introduction to any football lover. He is by far one of if not the best African footballer by a mile. With 56 goals for his country, Etoo and Yaya Toure of Ivory Coast hold the proud record of being crowned the African Player four times. From 2003-2005 he won the accolade consecutively. He holds the record for winning a treble in consecutive years for Barcelona and Inter Milan of Spain and Italy in successive years of 2009 and 2010.
Yet, in February, 2006 when his Barcelona side faced Real Zaragoza; Etoo would take a bold stand that remains an iconic illustration of a player standing up against racism. In the 76th minute when Barcelona had a corner, Etoo would be subjected to racist chants by the home fans. He had had enough, he started walking off the pitch.
A fourth official ran to make the stadium announcer stop the chants and game, both his team mates and the opposing side plus the match referee tried to stop him from walking out of the pitch. Etoo was adamant, a Spanish reporter quoted a Zaragoza player saying that he had Etoo’s teammate, Brazilian Ronaldinho say that if Etoo walked out of the pitch he would follow suit. After a long stand-off, the match resumed with Barcelona winning by 2 goals. But why was the game not stopped? What did the Spanish Football Association do to curb this? Did the guilty fans get punished?
Many black players are subjected to racist chants. Yet, the meagre fines slapped on such fans are not a hindrance. Kalidou Koulibaly, Mario Balotelli, Raheem Sterling, Austin Okocha are players who have mesmerised the world with their footballing skills, yet they have been victims of racist chants. What has FIFA ever done to deter this?
We live in interesting times globally. Racism and tribalism have been institutionalized everywhere. President Trump for all his bigotry and white supremacist views has a legion of die-hard stalwarts. He stokes fires of division and yet he is the leader of the supposed free world. He advocates for the police to use excessive force on innocent protestors exercising their freedom and right to picket. All this in contradiction to a Constitution he is supposed to protect.
Football fans have been victims of police brutality in sports stadiums. It is not the duty of crowds to protect them; it is the duty of football federations and the stadium managements to ensure that fans are safe during games.
Sports is a great avenue for correcting societal injustices but again it is a perfect avenue that reflects how society is.