Football is a crazy old game in how it sometimes offers us unintentional lessons and fascinating parallels.
In America it is MLK Day, the national holiday in celebration of the life of the slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For most people it’s just a free day off work. That it came courtesy of a great man lying in a puddle of blood is immaterial. Others honor the day by taking part in programs, marking legacies or doing some small something to honor his memory.
It’s quite striking that in an extravagantly roundabout way that on this day word arrived that Barça has signed Kevin Prince Boateng, something of a civil rights leader in his own right. In 2013 during a friendly against a fourth-division side, in the face of racist insults, Boateng sparked what became a full-team walk off the pitch in protest.
Players from both sides appealed to Boateng, in video footage that is still dramatic. Finally Milan captain Massimo Ambrosini acted like a captain and a boss and said, “We’re going with Boateng.”
Then-Milan coach Allegri said, “I hope that (our actions) will be followed if it were to happen in official games, from the amateur championships to Serie A.”
That nothing has moved, that nothing has been done, finds its echoes in the statements of Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti in 2018. In the face of racist abuse of one of his players, Kalidou Koulibaly, he said that the next time, his team would walk off the pitch. Did he mean it? Does it matter?
The Camp Nou has its own history of monkey chants and abuse of black players. And the Barça side that boasted Toure Yaya, Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, and Lilian Thuram in the same XI spit in the face of that awful history.
It’s a safe bet that the Barcelona board doesn’t give two hairy humps about Boateng’s firestarter legacy. They might even have debated the seny of signing such a player, given the reality of being a black footballer in Spain. Samuel Umtiti has faced racist taunts, as have Abidal and pretty much any black player in La Liga. Dani Alves snatched up a banana flung at him by a racist Villarreal supporter, ate it, then launched in a perfect corner kick.
All of these roads lead to a complicated, and vile incident during Sunday’s Barcelona B match when the team’s right back, Moussa Wague, thumped an opposing team’s supporter in the face after a barrage of racist insults, and received a straight red. His punishment is still to be determined. So is the club’s stance on the situation.
On Wague’s Instagram he admitted to doing it, saying that it was after racist abuse. The only official statement to date from FC Barcelona has been that the player apologizes for the incident.
Compare that to the statement released by Napoli in support of Koulibaly:
“With the rejection of the appeal against Koulibaly’s ban, we can comment on the extraordinary 23 days that have passed since Inter-Napoli.
“The rejection of our appeal is a grave defeat for football, but also for the bigger picture that this whole affair raised: the fight against discrimination of all kinds, which continue to be present in football and in our society.”
On Barça Twitter, many are noting the club’s silence in the matter of Wague. And let’s be clear about something: Wague should keep his stuff together. Players can’t go upside spectators heads, no matter how deserved it might be. If a black person was to tolchok a racist in the gob every time an insult occurred, they would have to borrow hands to throw.
Surely Wague knows all of this, and does regret his action in the broader context. His statement said in part:
“I want to denounce also that my action, attempting to get the ball back from a fan to take a throw-in, arrived after being the object of numerous and reiterated racist insults and songs that should not be tolerated ever in a football stadium.”
But clubs, even in Segunda B, have responsibilities to protect players. Should Wague have brought it to the referee’s attention and did he? Unknown. And in the larger context, the club for who the player works has a similar responsibility. Official condemnation from the highest levels is a start for necessary change. Is the club doing its own investigation? Is it asking the host club what happened and what is being done to punish the abuser?
We can only imagine the pain and anger that Wague, the great RB hope for the FC Barcelona first team, must be going through. At a time such as this, support matters. Could someone from his entourage be whispering in his ear, questioning the logic of staying at a club that doesn’t support you at a time such as this? The club just signed Jean-Clair Todibo, another black player, from Toulouse. What is he thinking, if anything?
Black players aren’t under any illusions about the reality of life in certain leagues, such as Spain and Italy. But younger players are less of the “shrug and bear it” mindset, and demand action. Even as the game tries to ignore these incidents, hiding them behind sloganeering such as Kick It Out or Respect, as a whole, supporters are vastly less tolerant of such actions.
In the wake of the Alves incident the club issued a statement expressing solidarity, and talking about fighting against the “blight” on football that is racism. But so far in the Wague episode there has been silence, a damning silence that speaks loudly. Maybe in 23 days, like Napoli, the club will have issued a huffy press release. Maybe the club has already reached out to the player to express support. Maybe. But the game, the world, is public, and highly so. Public statements matter.
Maybe craven men in Gucci loafers are wondering what to do. Maybe they are thinking that the player lost their sympathy when he whacked a fan. Maybe they are wondering about any sort of statement in support of the player, and trying to craft something that treads the line between not condoning supporter smackdowns OR racism. Maybe they are so busy locking down a firebrand forward that the proper response has been pushed down the to-do list.
FC Barcelona has come a long way from the times of monkey chants and other insults aimed at black players. Ousmane Dembele is the toast of the Camp Nou for his exploits on the pitch, even as you can only wonder about how quickly things got ugly when he overslept a couple of times and was late to training — his treatment from media outlets and supporters when his game isn’t sparkling, when he isn’t being perfect, on and off the pitch.
As a signing, Boateng could be the right move. He still has something in his tank and is precisely the kind of player who can come off the bench to get the team a key goal, to allow Suarez, another 31-year-old forward, to get some rest. But even apart from all of that, in the strange, crazy way that the world has of making unrelated events make sense, signing Boateng is a cool move on the part of FC Barcelona, provided you take some craaazy semantic leaps.
There is no way in hell F.C. Barcelona meant the Boateng signing as such a gesture. It’s a football move. Read what you like into the deafening silence in the wake of one of its own receiving the kind of abuse that no player should have to face, that no club should be silent on, the kind of abuse that made its newest signing something of a minor legend. The Wague situation awaits, and people are watching.
Speak up, Barça. We’re waiting.