Racism Threatens to Overshadow the Copa America

South America's continental tournament is about to kick off. But many are worried that racism could mar a great footballing spectacle.

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Jun 11 2015, 2:22pm

Photo by PA Images

This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

It was one of those incidents that has no place in sport. A scuffle on the pitch, followed by a confrontation. A white player, in anger, turns to a black player from the opposite team and launches a racist epithet his way.

Although it is almost a carbon copy of the Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra incident from 2011, this one took place just last month in Argentina when Damián Pérez of Arsenal de Sarandi in the Argentinian first division labelled his counterpart, Jerry Bengtson of Belgrano de Cordoba, negro de mierda — a racially abusive term that roughly translates as "a negro of shit".

Bengtson plays internationally for Honduras and appeared in their three group games at last year's World Cup | Photo by PA Images

However, unlike the Suarez/Evra incident, which was followed by months of coverage and disciplinary action, Pérez got away with a half-hearted apology after the game; Bengtson got a yellow card for his troubles.

It is this kind of incident, which has become so ubiquitous in Latin American football, that has led many to fear the current Copa America, about to get underway in Chile, might be marred by xenophobic outbursts; governing body CONMEBOL is sufficiently concerned that it has warned of serious sanctions should any racist incidents occur.

There is an embarrassment of riches to draw from that suggest these concerns are well founded.

Spare a thought, for example, for Jhoel Herrera from Real Garcilaso in the Peruvian first division. He brought his family to the stadium to watch his team's clash with Cienciano to celebrate Mother's Day last month. He was subjected to 90 minutes of racist abuse that was completely ignored by the referee. Herrera made it through the whole game and was putting on a brave face in the post-match interview only to spot his mother being physically attacked by the racist Cienciano fans on the sidelines. The video of Herrera aborting his interview to go and defend his mother in the stands is enough to make any football fan feel ashamed.

Racism is, however, not confined to stadia around Latin America. It's also crept into football punditry, for instance, where Alberto Raimundi in Argentina felt comfortable enough to label Teofilo Gutierrez a negro de mierda live on air; or even the world of politics, where Brazilian legend Ronaldinho was called a 'simian' by a Mexican politician last year.

It's worth pointing out that this is not a new phenomenon. As Dr. Rory Miller of the University of Liverpool and author of Football in the Americas: Futbol, Futebol, Soccer explained to VICE Sports: "It's always been there, though the nature of the racism has varied from one country to another. In Brazil the rivalry between Flamengo and Fluminense in the 1920s was based very much on racial differences, in particular Flamengo's employment of black and mixed-race players. Acceptance of black players in the national team took a long time in Brazil, and they were often blamed for Brazil's failures in the World Cup before the country's first victory in 1958. In Peru the historical rivalry between La U and Alianza has been based both on race and class."

However, the spike in racist incidents in that last few years might be explained by a change in the racial attitudes in Latin America as a whole. Dr. Miller explains: "What I think is important is that the way people think about race has changed in South America. Before the 1990s it was never a black-and-white issue — literally — as it was in the United States, where you were one or the other. Racial mixture was accepted as being complex, and what appear to us to be racist terms could, in certain contexts, be terms of endearment. Thus 'cholo' in Peru could be a racist term if wealthy whites were referring to indigenous migrants of Lima, but for a football fan to refer to Hugo Sotil as 'el cholo' was a sign of affection and admiration. The ways in which society views indigeneity and blackness have changed as political movements and protests have grown around these."

Others, however, point to a lack of leadership from the authorities. The Chilean Senator Lily Perez has written an open letter to her country's President in which she voices her concerns about the lack of action by the government.

"It is regrettable that it's not only the national coach who is experiencing headaches over [the] Copa America" she says. "The government too is facing a very difficult situation and it's not necessarily the delay on the delivery of infrastructure, but instead because of its complete failure to push an effective campaign against a problem plaguing football pitches on a daily basis: racism and incitement to hate."

Senator Pérez is a campaigner for a more involved role by the government in regulating racist abuse and is particularly concerned about the lethargic preparations made by the Chilean authorities to deal with the issue.

"Just a few weeks from the tournament, the government has [been notable] through its absence. They have worried more about seats in stadia than developing educational and preventive campaigns about incitement to hate because of race. Brazil for its World Cup, and European countries for their competitions, invest time, money and above all leadership in trying to solve this problem with great results."

Pérez used an incident that happened in Chile towards the end of last year to highlight her plea, when Emilio Rentería, a Venezuelan by birth, had to abandon the pitch in tears having been the victim of a barrage of racist abuse by the opposite team's fans.

"As the author of a project that identifies racism and incitement to hate in all its forms, I'd like to invite the government to invest its efforts in this topic, as they need to remember that football is a party for everybody," the senator continued.

It is clear that Chile's failure to implement an effective plan to deal with racist abuse is a worry shared by CONMEBOL. They have expressed dismay at the host nation's lacklustre attempts at putting together an anti-racism campaign, with the confederation's president, Juan Ángel Napout, reminding Chileans that "there are very strong sanctions... We have very clear disciplinary procedures and we will be using them in full if any xenophobic incident occur during the Copa."

Football needs this tournament to be free from controversy. With the FIFA fiasco still fresh in fans' memories, it would be very disappointing if our attention during the Copa America was shifted to another case of racist abuse.