I wrote a completely different blog for this week, but then two things happened. First, the U.S. Men's team posted an amazing and well-deserved win over number one ranked Spain in the Confederations Cup. Second, before the game, FIFA had each team captain read a statement which condemned racism on the soccer pitch and asked for an end to racism in the world. FIFA has continued a program it began supporting several years ago that addresses the problem of racism in soccer. In 2005, disturbed by a racial slur cast on him by, ironically, the Spanish National Team coach, Thierry Henry began his "Stand Up, Speak Up" campaign. He asked Nike to support the cause, which they did by manufacturing and distributing rubber wrist bands of two intertwined circles of black and white. They also funded public service announcements before, during, and after games that featured major soccer stars decrying the blight of racism in the sport. Then in 2006 for the World Cup, FIFA began its own program – Say No to Racism. Yesterday, hearing the fans cheering the on-field pronouncements gave me new hope that racism can be defeated.
The U.S. Men's win over Spain proves two very significant aspects of soccer. Anything can happen and heart plays a huge role in the sport. I had so little faith in the U.S. Men after their lackluster performances in the preliminary rounds of the Confederations Cup that I actually went out grocery shopping during the first half of the game. The U.S. had barely squeaked through to the semis. They had required the perfect storm we all calculate at our kids' soccer tournaments to open the door to Wednesday's upset of Spain. The U.S. had lost two games in their bracket. The only way they could go through was if they beat Egypt by three goals and Brazil beat Italy by three goals. Other than very young youth games, it's a rare day when teams win with a three goal margin. To have two teams do it defies the odds, but that's what happened. The fact that U.S. team did its part to insure a berth in the semis speaks volumes about their collective change of heart from going through the motions to clawing for victory. So I should have expected that given the chance on the world stage to show that the U.S. can now be a force that they would do exactly that. By the time I arrived home from the store, the U.S. was up 1-0 and when the dust settled they had added a second goal and played the waning minutes down a man after Michael Bradley received an extremely questionable red card. They played brilliantly, especially in the back where a frustrated Spain had opportunity after opportunity stolen by our defenders and Tim Howard, the goalkeeper. I can't wait for the game Sunday. By the time this blog is posted, everyone will know the outcome, but right now I don't even know their opponent!
What motivated me even more to change my blog was the ceremony before the game, which I saw later in the evening when we watched the game again (note my previous blog
on recording games and playing them back). It was moving to see the Spanish team captain reading a statement deploring racism. Since it was two incidents involving Spanish teams that sparked Thierry Henry's crusade, it was both fitting and significant that Spain read the first statement. When Henry was insulted by the Spanish National Team coach he didn't respond, believing instead that FIFA would condemn the statement. But nothing happened. Then a month later the black members of England's national side were barraged with a slew of racial insults during a "friendly" match in Madrid. Again nothing happened.
As Henry explains in an interview in Time magazine, he felt he had to speak out. "As a player, you'd hear or see the occasional racist insult or gesture, but you'd tell yourself it's unfortunate but normal, a price to pay if you want to play pro football. But after all these things happened, I realized that footballers have a duty to defend important values, and use their media exposure to deliver messages when the occasion presents itself." He solicited Nike and the rest is history. What Henry didn't say was that no player should have to pay the price of racism, especially youth players. Yet they do every day here in the U.S. and around the world. They don't receive monetary compensation for putting up with racial attacks. I understand this personally.
I don't speak about it much because I don't feel it is relevant to most discussions, but our sons are adopted and bi-racial. They have endured their share of racial attacks during games and off the field, but they also understand that people will find any way, even hatred, to try to put them off their game. We have always said that the boys can't use racism as an excuse for not succeeding because many African-Americans and Hispanics have succeeded before them in atmospheres of far less tolerance than today. Nevertheless, they have had to toss off both overt and implied racism. Bryce has been spat upon in goal and called names. Just this week Robbie, who is working for a landscape contractor, was refused a cup of ice water by a client because she was "out of cups," while just moments later a white coworker was given a cup. Clearly racism is pervasive and ugly, but certainly not worthy of being tolerated within the international power and scope of soccer. When FIFA came out with their Say No to Racism campaign, I applauded. It has happened far too late for an organization with such world-wide influence and recognition, but it happened. For that I am grateful.
Soccer encompasses the world and as such can provide the leadership to rise above intolerance. Soccer sponsors more international competitions that bring together disparate races, religions, politics, and economies than the highly touted Olympics. Both men and women play. It fosters both national and individual pride. So it shouldn't be the venue where racism is allowed to be practiced unabated. Therefore it was a powerful moment in that South African stadium where two teams spoke out against racism. Today Brazil and South Africa will meet in the second semifinal game and these teams will also read statements before the game. Having players unite shows, in Henry's words, "that racism is a problem for everyone, a collective ailment. It shows that people of all colors, even adversaries on the pitch, are banding together in this, because we're all suffering from it together." When teammates are attacked on the basis of their race or religion, it affects everyone.
As parents, coaches, and referees we have a responsibility to both lead by example and to confront racism when it appears. It's a sad commentary that a program like Say No to Racism is needed but it is also heartening to see that an official stance has been taken by the international organization. I am not so naïve as to believe that racism will disappear altogether, but I am hopeful that we can make racism difficult to flourish. After all, if the U.S. Men's team that lost to Costa Rica, barely beat Honduras, and clawed its way into the semifinals of the Confederations Cup can then defeat the number one team in the world, I think that collectively as human beings we can find the heart to squash racism.