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Brent Latham: Racism pervasive in CONCACAF despite press silence

If racism is a bigger topic in Europe, especially during Euro 2012, it's because the continent is committed to rooting it out, unlike CONCACAF.

For the duration of the 2012 European Championship - indeed, since well before the Euros even kicked off - it’s been impossible to get through the headlines without seeing at least one mentioning some form of racism.

The Euro has provided us the all-too-common examples of flag-burning Croatians, banana-throwing Russians and race-baiting Spaniards. (In the interest of directing attention to the issue, it seems fair enough to name names when the cases are documented, and in this case the respective federations fined by UEFA. This list refers not to generalities but actual events that have taken place at Euro 2012.)

Rather than helping to eradicate racism, the internationalization of the global game seems to have come hand in hand with an unfortunate age in which soccer events serve as one of the final stages left on which racists are comfortable expressing their hate openly.

Nevertheless, many would argue that the coverage of episode after episode of racism in the stands in Ukraine and Poland is overkill. I’d argue the contrary: that every single event of hate deserves the coverage it gets, and then some.

Racists thrive in the dark world of anonymous hatred. Shining a light on their ugly attitudes serves at least to ostracize such behavior as unacceptable in modern society, which by all means includes stadia.

Which brings us home to CONCACAF. Many would likely argue that racism in soccer is primarily Europe’s problem. Much of that way of thinking comes from the fact that, in an effort to stamp out the hate, Europeans have been brave enough to shine a bright light on the plague of racism that mars the game there.

Unfortunately for the beautiful game, though, a tribalistic version of racism seems to have become part and parcel of international soccer in many other places. In this sense, CONCACAF is little better than Europe. In fact, an argument could be made that the situation is even worse here at home.

Racism in soccer exists in the Americas; that much should be clear to any observer open to seeing it. Racial abuse from the stands and even on the field is common across Latin America, and certainly not unheard of in North America. As most players of color - in this case either too dark or too light skinned for the taste of local fans - will attest, the problem is particularly stubborn in Central America. For players of African descent in many parts of Central America, being called a monkey is an everyday ordeal.

The difference between Europe and our region, sadly, is not the absence of racism’s ugly presence. It’s that media, and indeed society in general, refuse to turn a spotlight on the problem, instead clinging to a false sense of moral superiority over countries where problems of racism are recognized and addressed, while turning a blind eye to the problem at home.

In Latin America, a racially abused player knows better than to appeal to a referee for relief - none will be forthcoming because stomping out racism is simply not on the agenda, or even radar screen, of the area. Instead, he knows that complaints will lead to even worse abuse next time out.

The situation is grave. But just as worrisome is that our local version of racism, like that in Europe, has long since spilled over into the stands of CONCACAF.

The rhetoric borders on tribal warfare. Mexico of late has become the target of repetitive and ugly demonstrations every time El Tri travels for a game. In El Salvador earlier this month, fans chose en masse to manifest anti-Mexican hatred and an irrational dislike of all things Mexican - including the people - instead of simply supporting their own national team.

Of course anti-Americanism is nothing new in the region, but each soccer match against the U.S. seems to provide the opportunity for Central Americans (and to be fair, Mexicans as well to some extent) to express distaste for that country and its people as a whole. At this month’s qualifier in Guatemala, the typical racist chants and signage were everywhere around the stadium, as usual. But these sorts of things are so commonplace in CONCACAF that no one even bothers to mention it anymore.

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Given the current political climate, it may be only a matter of time before these sort of open displays of intolerance invade stadiums in the U.S. (if they haven’t already - it’s been years since this author has attended an international game in the U.S.). As soccer fans, we’re clearly headed in the wrong direction.

These are the kinds of acts that are currently being exposed, documented, and punished in Europe. Meanwhile, in CONCACAF, everyone - from Confederation officials to teams to media - turns a blind eye or even chuckles at all the hate. "All part of the game," Chepo de la Torre said of the Salvadorans’ demonstrations.

Tragically, racism has indeed become a part of the game in our region, on and off the field. But expressing hate for an entire country through the pretext of a soccer match should not be acceptable behavior in this day and age. Call the CONCACAF version tribalism instead of racism if you like, but slandering the citizenry of an entire nation with hateful epithets in the name of sport will meet most definitions of racism. Let’s not dismiss an important discussion by getting caught up in games of diction.

Soccer is a game played by people of all colors, races, and creeds, around the world, by the same rules. In its highest form, it can act as a powerful force to bring societies together.

Sadly, though, the game in many places seems to have been hijacked by factional groups intent on fracturing the delicate international bonds of friendship forged everyday by individuals - many times on the very soccer fields later targeted by the haters. 

Europe’s not alone there. It might not be highlighted frequently - or ever - in the press, but CONCACAF is no exception. The first step is to recognize the problem, a quest in which Europe is, bravely, leading the way. On racism in our soccer, it’s past time to stop the high and mighty act, and call a spade a spade.

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