It has been almost six years since Kevin-Prince Boateng made the decision to walk off the pitch, followed in solidarity by his AC Milan teammates, in protest at the racist abuse he, M’Baye Niang, Urby Emanuelson and Sulley Muntari were subjected to during a friendly against Pro Patria. The gesture made headlines around the world, starting a conversation about what could be done within football and society as a whole to tackle the issue.
Shortly after that incident in Busto Arsizio, Boateng was invited to join a newly created FIFA Task Force Against Racism and Discrimination. But as we sit down in the temporary cabin doubling as Sassuolo’s media room in October, the former Ghana international tells me, “with FIFA I didn’t talk for a long, long time.” He remains in touch with the UN and made an impassioned speech at a convention in March 2013 in Geneva. “They want to know what’s going on. If something has changed. What they can do.”
But the silence from the football authorities is deafening.
“I had three or four ideas. I put them out there. I spoke to them about it. But at the end of the day, nothing happened. Nothing changed. It’s just Champions League. ‘Say No to Racism.’ That’s it.”
How disappointing is that? “Very,” Boateng says.
“The only thing that has changed is that racism is more hidden. It’s not up front anymore or people chanting or whatever because they know there’s going to be sanctions, people are going to watch [them]. So it’s just a little bit more hidden. But it’s still there because if you see the last five years, a lot of things happen still, and it’s very alarming because after five years nothing has happened, nothing has changed. That’s sad.”
An episode after the German Cup final last May brought attitudes towards racism into sharp focus for Boateng. “I said in Germany last year: ‘It feels like we fight more against pyrotechnics than racism.'” At one point during the celebration of Eintracht Frankfurt’s cup final victory against Bayern, the club’s first piece of silverware in 30 years, Boateng waved a flare around on the balcony of city hall.
“Someone called the police,” Boateng says.
“Come on,” he says, incredulous. “It feels really like we fight more against pyrotechnics. In the stadium, someone does pyrotechnics, and the stadium guy talks: Please stop it! And you get a €20,000 fine. But if there are racist chants, it’s like people don’t hear it.”
According to Boateng, fireworks and flares are punished more harshly than racist abuse, an imbalance that has to change.
In the event they do, excuses are made, as when Muntari, his old teammate and fellow victim in Busto Arsizio, walked off the pitch at Sant Elia and received a second yellow card (which was later rescinded) for protesting the racist abuse he suffered while playing for Pescara against Cagliari in May 2017.
No action was taken by Serie A’s sporting judge on the basis that the 10 people chanting would not have been heard were it not for a silent protest; the official match report said that “approximately 10 people” were involved, and according to league guidelines, it didn’t meet the threshold for sanctions. The referee didn’t hear them either, so they were not written up in his report.
Just days after sitting down with Boateng, The New York Times ran a story about Kerfalla Sissoko, an amateur soccer player from Guinea playing in France who was racially abused in May and given a 10-match ban, the same suspension as the perpetrators, after a brawl broke out in which, according to spectators, he and the team’s other black players were assaulted by their opponents, leaving him beaten and with severe post-traumatic stress disorder — depressing stuff at a time when society seems more divided and less tolerant than in a long time.
“I think about that so many times,” Boateng says. “When I grew up, we thought we were divided. But at the end of the day it was fine, and you know, we were OK. I grew up with all cultures in the world … Sometimes you fight. But now it’s like really hate.
“When you go to Germany, you see the people go on the street. There are maybe three, four thousand racists walking on the street and have the right to walk on the street and put their arm up and do the Hitler sign.
Sassuolo’s Kevin-Prince Boateng says it takes big names like Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James and others to take action against racism for there to be change.
“Come on! We cannot allow that. It’s impossible because we have kids watching it, so if we allow that, kids learn that [they are] allowed to do that, [and] maybe they go the wrong way. It’s very alarming, but it’s even difficult for me. What can I do, I try, I always try to talk, every interview I want to talk about it and explain. But if the big people, the important people, the politicians don’t do anything, what can we do?”
Not that Boateng is deterred. Speaking up and raising awareness on social issues, using the platform and profile sport provides, continue to drive him. He has great respect for the sacrifices former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick made in taking a stand against social injustice and racialised forms of police brutality.
“Those are the [kind of] moments we need,” he says. “To [demonstrate] what people are fighting against, they let their voices be heard. Kaepernick, he left millions in money [on the table], advertisers, Nike … to say what he [believes]. He’s a hero. He’s like Muhammad Ali. He’s going to be known forever, and if one day he dies, everyone is going to remember him.
“You need these people. You need LeBron James. You need the Golden State [Warriors], who are against their president. It’s crazy. But they show [their convictions]. They say: ‘We’re not going.’
“You need these big people to make big actions because otherwise nothing will change.”
Credit: Kwese ESPN