Jason Spears, a lawyer from Alabama, traveled to Brazil for this year’s World Cup and scored tickets to several matches, where he rooted enthusiastically for the US and Ghana. But Spears said he was astonished by what he saw among some of the fans during Ghana games: people wearing blackface make-up or silly afro wigs.
At the Ghana versus Portugal match on June 26, Spears, who is black, approached a man in blackface and expressed his disapproval of the man’s costume. The fan responded that he was there to root for Ghana.
“I told these fans that that’s really offensive. We are not a caricature,” Spears told VICE News.
The 32-year-old uploaded photos of people in blackface at the World Cup to Instagram, such as one showing two German fans in blackface, wigs, and crude-looking “Ghana” T-shirts, smiling happily, while Germany played against the African nation’s team.
“So far I've counted eight Germans in blackface,” Spears posted on June 21, along with a photo that went viral in the ongoing discussion on race at the World Cup. “People are lining up to take pictures with them.”
Racist, derogatory language and imagery, as well as outright racial discrimination, have been evident throughout the World Cup in Brazil.
'It’s 2014 and this is still happening. It’s really, really sad.'
After years of horrible instances of racism, such as the practice of throwing bananas and monkey chants at black players in professional leagues in Europe, world soccer’s governing body, FIFA, introduced an anti-discrimination task force at the 2014 World Cup.
But as the World Cup reaches the quarter-finals this week, the agency has so far shown little bite. The task force opened investigations into the use of Nazi imagery on Russian and Croatian fan banners and also against Mexico and Brazil supporters for using the term puto, considered homophobic and derogatory by anti-discrimination groups.
FIFA's separate disciplinary body has so far not heeded the task force's warnings against teams and fans. FIFA said it could not identify the specific individuals responsible for the offensive banners among Croatia and Russia fans. The organization had earlier banned Croatian player, Josip Šimunic, after he led a Nazi-era war cry in the World Cup playoffs last year.
In the case of Mexican fans shouting puto, which literally translates to male prostitute, FIFA decided the term is “not considered insulting in this specific context.” As a result, Mexican fans have since embraced the chant with increased vigor. Some started sporting T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Ehh, Puto!” at other matches.
On Twitter, airlines and government officials from various countries have deployed offensive stereotypes against rival teams on the field, often with embarrassing results.
Royal Dutch Airlines, or KLM, posted an image within seconds of the Netherlands victory over Mexico, showing a cartoon sombrero and mustache on a “departures” sign at an airport, an easy use of the oldest Mexican stereotype in the book. KLM took down the offending tweet, which managed to provoke a foul-mouthed response from Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal.
“I’m never flying your shitty airline again,” Bernal tweeted to KLM. “Fuck you big-time.”
It gets more groan-worthy.
Nicolette van Dam, a Dutch actress and UNICEF ambassador, sent a tweet before a Colombia game that showed two Colombian players attempting to snort the "vanishing spray" used by referees on a field as if it were lines of cocaine, in an awkward reference to the country’s former status as the world’s top cocaine supplier. Van Dam eventually resigned her UNICEF post over the meme mess that followed.
In Mexico, the personal secretary of President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted a photoshopped image depicting the "Honduran team" traveling atop a plane to Brazil, mocking the tens of thousands of Central American migrants who cross Mexico annually on top of dangerous freight trains. The secretary, Erwin Manuel Lino Zarate, claimed his account was hacked.
When reached by VICE News, the FIFA task force said its members were unavailable for interviews.
“It’s 2014 and this is still happening. It’s really, really sad,” Taye Johnson, a Nigerian fan, told VICE News, at the FIFA Fan Fest in Rio de Janeiro. “FIFA needs to do more and arrest people who indulge in things like this. It should be discouraged by any means possible.”
Other supporters there told me they saw no harm in the discriminatory jokes. “That is their way of showing their support for the teams,” Brazilian fan Mari Cortés said.
Black Brazilians Absent
More than 50 percent of Brazil’s population is mixed-race or black, but observers at the World Cup have noticed how relatively absent black Brazilians have been in the media spectacle that accompanies the event.
Late last year, FIFA sparked a scandal during the final draw for its local masters of ceremonies for the tournament telecasts. Globo, one of the nation’s major TV networks, suggested two well-known Brazilian actors of African descent, Camila Pitanga and Lázaro Ramos, for the host slot. But FIFA instead went with a white couple, Fernanda Lima and Rodrigo Hilbert, as their Brazilian MCs.
'As a black man, I watch these people on television saying there is no racism in this country and I can only think they are the biggest of all racists.'
The soccer body rejected claims that the decision was racist, saying it merely chose the couple from a list of Globo’s suggested celebrities. Various bloggers cried foul, citing the incident as yet another example of discrimination in Brazil’s white-dominated media landscape. An estimated 40 percent of Afro-Brazilians earn the paltry minimum wage of $310 a month, and a World Cup ticket costs between $90 and $1,000, reports say. Not surprisingly, Brazil fans at stadiums in this World Cup have been overwhelmingly white.
“As a black man, I watch these people on television saying there is no racism in this country and I can only think they are the biggest of all racists,” Paulo Isidoro de Jesus, who played for Brazil in the 1982 World Cup, told the Globe and Mail. “It’s a party in a country where most people are black and black people aren’t in it, and it makes me really mad.”
On Wednesday, Jeffrey Webb, the head of the task force, lamented FIFA's apparent lack of commitment to combat racism at the World Cup. "It is obvious there is a disconnect between what we in the task force deem as racism and discrimination, and what the disciplinary committee deems as racism and discrimination," Webb said during the taping of a "Say No to Racism" video by FIFA.
Spears, the American visitor, said he was saddened to see that the governing body hasn’t taken a stronger stand against racism. When he approached people with afro wigs at Ghana games he was disappointed each time.
“The first group I confronted just responded by dancing provocatively, and the second group who were also sporting afro wigs told me they just wanted to support Ghana,” Spears told me. “I told them a Ghana jersey would be a better choice.”
Follow Andalusia Knoll on Twitter: @andalalucha