African viewpoint: Blatter and the Africans

Sepp Blatter in front of a South Africa World Cup poster Sepp Blatter was caught off-side with his comments about racial disputes

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers the fallout from Fifa President Sepp Blatter's comments about racism and football.

The football world was all a-twitter last week, after Sepp Blatter, the old man who runs the planet's favourite game, suggested that there were no racial disputes on the football pitch, and should there be any, they could all be settled by a handshake after the match.

Mr Blatter had of course unwittingly meandered into this storm because of allegations of racism currently gripping the English Premiere League - certainly the most televised and watched league on the African continent - between black and non-black players from opposing teams.

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Students of public relations may one day study the Sepp Blatter Art of Saving Face”

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Insults, as we have learned over the centuries, matter a great deal to those who wish to claim dubious superiority - see slavery, apartheid or the civil rights movement.

But sportsmen the world over may seek to gain a "one-upmanship" on the field of play - to psyche out their opponents and shatter their concentration on the game at hand - by referring to their mother, their sister, their wife and most provocatively, their ethnic background in the most insulting of terms.

Who does not remember the great French Zinedine Zidane head-butting an Italian defender in a World Cup final and practically blowing his country's chance of victory?

Has the world not just buried the great "Smokin' Joe" Frazier whose every bout in the boxing ring with Muhammad Ali was laced with references to "ugly gorilla" by his opponent?

Racist chanting

As stinging as such insults may have been, they seem to pale into insignificance compared to the slurs based on race, and Mr Blatter's blunder was the perception that he saw nothing wrong with racial insults in a 21st Century that has seen its fair share of excellent sportsmen and women who are judged by the purity of their talents not their skin colour.

Jesse Owens leaps from the starting line of the 100m dash during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin African-American athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Nazi Berlin

Such insults, he seemed to imply, could be washed away with a handshake.

However, students of public relations may one day study the Sepp Blatter Art of Saving Face.

Accused of being a racist, he posted a picture of himself with one of South Africa's most illustrious and wealthy sons, a veteran of the fight against apartheid, former Robben Island inmate and South African Fifa representative - Tokyo Sexwale - in a half-hug pose on the world football's governing body website.

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History shall struggle to remember the bungling inarticulate racists and their apologists”

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And as luck would have it, his African friend faced the press the very next morning and said Mr Blatter's words were "unfortunate" but he was "no racist" having fought tooth and nail for Africa to host her first World Cup in 2010.

Once forgiven by a living saint of the anti-apartheid struggle, Mr Blatter was ready to offer his own apology to those slighted by his insensitive comments.

He reminded us that he had started his football career in Africa 36 years ago, and that far from having faith in the handshake, he favoured zero tolerance for racial abuse on the football pitch.

It is doubtful whether those players facing allegations of racism on the pitch could summon an anti-apartheid fighter to their cause, but the debate has been thrown out there to be caught by an outraged and hypocritical media which 20 years ago would have stayed silent on the matter of scores of black professionals being systematically abused whether they played for club or country.

'Hollow and unrealistic'

Then there are the fans in the 21st Century game - black or African players plying their trade in many Eastern European locations speak of playing in arenas of ignorance and insults, established teams peppered with players of colour regularly complain to Fifa about the conduct of away fans - Bulgaria, Croatia and Serbia have all been fined by Uefa in the last four years for "the racist chanting of supporters and the improper conduct of their players" in the European game.

Italian striker Mario Balotelli Italian striker Mario Balotelli, the son of Ghanaian immigrants, has suffered racist abuse from fans

Even Italy's adopted African, Mario Balotelli, has not been immune to racist abuse from Italian fans.

It is this evidence of the existence of orchestrated acts of racial abuse which made Mr Blatter's handshake theory sound hollow and unrealistic.

Moreover, it may be football and Mr Blatter who have raised the issue of race this time around, but it could have been anything else.

For the conceit of humanity is to imagine that people have played some part in who they have turned out to be, that this accident of birth that is skin colour is somehow representative of God's will and means something, a kind of hierarchy of value.

The greatest sportsmen and women of our time surfed this particular wave of stupidity with the grace their humanity demanded - Jesse Owens beating the field in front of Adolf Hitler during the 1936 Berlin Olympics for instance, and the late South African cricketer, Basil D'Oliveira, born a "Cape Coloured", discarded by his apartheid-obsessed country only to excel for another, England.

Whether or not Mr Blatter survives the clamour for his dismissal - and he probably will - history shall struggle to remember the bungling inarticulate racists and their apologists, but recall the grace of the best of the game's players - Pele, Johann Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Zidane.

And ideally, you should struggle to remember what race any of them were.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    @martynabrahams - there's no bigger chip on these comments than the one firmly stuck on your shoulder. I see your comment at 16 broke the house rules - we know where you're coming from, shall we say Pretoria 1960's?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    @ IAfrican
    It is relevant "mate".
    I has to do with racism something that seems to find itself in the arena of racial one-sidedness. Whether or not my "blinkered' view has anything to do with regard to the author or condemnation of Malema is secondary, something you missed, but it has everything to do with people with chips on their shoulders whose cognitive dissonance is arguably beyond amazing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    @ Mr. JHChase

    How can you say Tokyo Sexwale is being used? Even if he was being used.....did he not profit from the World Cup financially while being one of the richest black men in S Africa and whilst the other 40 million starved? I think that it is probably the poor masses that could have arguably been used, not Sexwale.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    @Martyn Abrahams - what are you smoking? This article has nothing to do with Malema. What's ironic is your blinkered view - the article did not condemn anyone it examined the current "racism in sport" debate. Are you a white south african feeling a bit sore about Malema? Wrong forum for you mate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    instead of Blatter trying to be diplomatic about racism in football fifa should give harder punishment to racists because racism is still in football whether we like it or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    It's quite poignant that everyone shouts "racist!" when a white person makes a disparaging remark and it makes its way onto the pages of the media and with fierce condemnation...but I do not see anyone including the author of this article condemning African racists like Malema. Or do we pretend there no African racists....quite ironic.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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