"We're Not Racist, We Just Don't Like Gypsies" – Meet the Romany Football Club Other Teams Refuse to Play
Led by a Romany manager, and predominantly made up of Romany players, FC Roma Decin are subjected to a vicious onslaught of insults and racial slurs on an almost weekly basis. Assuming the opposition turns up, that is.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
"I'm no racist," a female villager pipes up defiantly as she cheers on her local football team. "But people should just be white."
Her friends giggle, the adjoining throng of fans nod oafishly in agreement, and one of the team's outfield players lets rip with a volley of similarly 'non-racist' abuse: "Go to work!" he says, goading the "motherfucking gypos", before serving up the delightfully subtle encore of "Send Hitler on them!"
This is a typical matchday for FC Roma Decin, a Czech football team playing in the country's third tier. Led by a Romany manager, and predominantly made up of Romany players, they are subjected to a vicious onslaught of anti-Romany insults and racial slurs on an almost weekly basis.
Assuming the opposition turns up, that is.
During the 2014-2015 season, a number of teams refused outright to play them, preferring to relinquish the points and pay a league fine rather than visit a ground they insisted led to "problems". The bizarre upside of this – explored in a new documentary, FC Roma – is that the team almost claimed the league title by default. Despite having won only one game, they found themselves fourth at Christmas, unexpectedly breathing down the neck of promotion. Sadly, their Leicester City-style fairytale was not to be, and by the end of the season they had fallen away.
The obvious – and more alarming – downside to the whole episode, however, was that it exposed the underlying racism in the Czech league. The team – a group of young lads who mostly just want to have a decent kick-around – are presented in the documentary as being trapped in a system that seems intent on trying to shut them out.
"Where in the world does someone refuse to play another team?" asks Pavel Horvath, the club's exasperated manager, after receiving a call about yet another cry-off. "It's easier to pay the 1500kc (£50) than to shake hands with us!" adds Pat, their chubby, straight-talking goalkeeper.
The managers of some of the teams argue that race isn't the issue, instead citing an incident in 2011 when the club – then called FC Decin – were involved in a post-match brawl in which the referee was punched in the face. This type of violent behaviour, they say, is actually what sways them from attending FC Roma Decin's home fixtures.
But to what extent is that just an excuse? We can hardly imagine Arsenal failing to travel to Old Trafford because a previous encounter got fiery.
"Racism is an issue in the Czech Republic," says Rozalie Kohoutova, who directed the FC Roma film together with Tomas Bojar. "Though it is sometimes discreet, it can be very dangerous. The majority of people say, 'We are not racist, we just don't like gypsies.' They say they don't want to live close to them, or don't want their kids to go to same school... Often they don't even know why."
This segregation between the "gypsies" and the "gadjos" (non-Roma) is a theme thats runs strikingly through the film – and it is not merely confined to the football pitch. In one scene, for instance, a group of FC Roma Decin players are refused drinks in a bar because they don't have a 'clubcard' – despite the fact that the other punters, non-Roma men enjoying a pint, clearly don't have one either.
According to a 2013 survey conducted by the STEM agency, 69% of Czech citizens described their relationship with Romani people as negative. So why does more than two-thirds of the nation feel this way?
The answer is perhaps best summed up by Pat's white co-worker. Loading their garbage truck one morning, Pat asks him why people are so strongly against the Roma community. Putting down his bin, he pauses, considers his answer, then says: "All they do is steal from us and beat us up."
This attitude – alarming as it sounds – is not an isolated opinion; in fact, it could be described as the prevailing voice of the Czech populace. The Roma community are neither liked nor trusted and are seen by many as people who just take handouts. Tellingly, the premiere of the film, scheduled to take place on a big screen at Bohemians 1905's stadium, was forced to be cancelled after right-wing supporters of other Prague clubs made threats towards the organisers if they dared show it.
"[Czechs] are raised to be racists", Pat eventually responds to his friend. "[They're] born, wrapped in a blanket and there's a swastika on there already."
However, the film also emphasises that, as much as the "gadjos" are responsible for the segregation, the "gypsies" are guilty of perpetuating it. During their pre-match team-talk, for example, the FC Roma Decin players yell, "Gypsies! Gypsies!" like a tribal war chant, and both their pre- and post-match comments reflect a distinct "us-vs-them" mentality.
The fans – about two dozen on a good day – also play a key role. While some of the bigoted opposition supporters are busy harping on about how people "should just be white", the Roma supporters are yelling angry abuse at the non-Romany players. When some of the kids, members of the club's youth academy, start brazenly yelling the word 'gypsy' by way of support, it takes an older man to turn around and reprimand them, telling them that they are not a race – they are FC Roma Decin.
So what does the future hold for the Romany club? And will the Czech populace ever be able to say, 'No to Racism?'
"It's difficult," says Kohoutova. "The Roma are a kind of lightning conductor for people's discontent – although it is probably natural to fear something we don't know. Recently, the role of lighting conductor has been played by the refugees, so Romany people are currently more in the shadow of these 'violent Islamic radicals coming to steal our European values'."
In the documentary, Pavel and Pat disagree. Driving along and witnessing the influx of Muslims in their area, they say that the Romany people have now been leapfrogged in the pecking order.
"We're last on the list!" groans Pavel.
But Pat immediately corrects him, saying: "We're not even on the list!" The incoming Muslims, he says, have now "pushed them off."