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Is North America too politically correct for true football culture?

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Atlanta FC’s inaugural game in March was a spectacle. 55,000 + fans were cheering and celebrating one of Major League Soccer’s two expansion teams for the 2017 season. The atmosphere was electric and lively, too lively for some.

During several goal kicks from the opposing keeper, some pockets of fans chanted the word “puto” a homophobic slur in Spanish used to try to get the goalkeeper off his game. This is a common practice from fans in Latin America. Many Spanish speaking people have argued that the word means “wimp” or “weak.” Intense criticism followed the match by the club, MLS and LGBTQ groups condemning the chants. The club issued an apology and says that some fans were banned from the stadium as a result for their behavior. The Mexican National Team, in particular, has been criticized heavily over the years by FIFA for their fans’ use of the word during matches. Most notably, incidents at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Copa America resulted in fines.

Football – or soccer – is becoming increasingly popular in North America on a national level. As a result, MLS clubs have embraced and grown supporter culture amongst their teams. The clubs have been trying to emulate their European and South American counterparts who have had 100+ years to develop this culture. With it comes the imitation of footballing traditions shared around the world, something fans this side of the Atlantic may not be too comfortable with.

Although North America, Europe and most of South America are considered a part of Western Civilization, there is a distinct difference in culture. Due to their great ethnic and religious diversity, North Americans have developed a more acute sense of political correctness, in an attempt to reduce frictions between the various groups. Europeans still associate very much with their place of birth with their ethnicity, language and culture. Being born and raised in Canada, but having spent a majority of my life visiting relatives in Italy, I have seen the differences in culture first hand. In North America, a heavily biased liberal media and education system have simultaneously “softened” the Gen X and Millennial generations. Logic has been sacrificed for the sake of protecting others’ feelings. In Europe and Latin America, various hardships have shaped the population’s mentality to one that is more hardened, in particular the latter, being subject to many civil wars & conflicts over the last half century. In Europe, most countries take a “laissez-faire” approach focusing on matters that concern them personally. Probably the greatest example of the difference in media between the two continents would be Donald Sterling vs Carlo Tavecchio.

Donald Sterling was the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers in the NBA. In 2014, a private phone conversation between Sterling and his mistress was released. In the recording, Sterling was irritated with his mistress after she posted a photo on Instagram of her with former NBA star Magic Johnson.  In short, Sterling made a racist comment by asking her not to bring any black people to his games. The NBA condemned these comments and subsequently banned Sterling from the NBA for life, fined him and removed him as owner of the Clippers.

Carlo Tavecchio is the current head of the Italian Football Federation. During the FIGC presidential elections in 2014, Tavecchio made international headlines when making a racist comment about foreign footballers in the league. Quoted by newspaper La Repubblica, Tavecchio said:

“England identifies the players coming in and, if they are professional, they are allowed to play. Here, on the other hand, let’s say there’s (fictional player) Opti Poba, who has come here, who previously was eating bananas in Africa and now is a first-team player for Lazio.”

Incredibly, Tavecchio was neither fined or suspended domestically but rather won the election! UEFA did however suspend him for 6 months meaning he couldn’t attend a few meetings in Brussels. In 2015, he made alleged anti-semitic and homophobic comments in a phone interview with a reporter. When asked about the amateur league’s sale to real estate mogul Cesare Anticoli he said, “It was bought by that lousy Jew Anticoli,” and in regards to gays he allegedly said, “I don’t have anything against gays but it’s better to keep them away from me.”

Sterling’s comments were inappropriate and damaged the reputation of the NBA. However, he should have just been fined, suspended and forced to go through a sensitivity course. The NBA, aided by the liberal sports media, chose the hysterical route and went too far with their discipline, while Tavecchio is still the top dog of the Italian football pyramid. This is a very stark contrast on how these two sports bodies handled similar situations.

The difference in culture, as you can see, manifests itself particularly in sports. For example gridiron football, basketball and baseball games have become cookie-cutter. Teams rely on a PA system and jumbotron for interaction amongst fans. Football fans don’t need anyone to tell them when to cheer or clap. They organically sing, boo, whistle whenever they please. The hard-core fans are called hooligans or ultras. They live and die for the club and have been known to go too far. Many supporter groups around the world have been known to chant and create offensive banners and commit acts of violence – both in and out of the stadium. Their tribal, intimate passion separates football from other sports. For the record, I am by no means condoning this behavior, it is borderline terrorism, but the fact of the matter is the ultras culture will never die in football.

Personally, I believe that football crowds in MLS can create an intense atmosphere but still be safe and fan-friendly.  If MLS supporter groups feel the need to be authentic and emulate some of their global counterparts, they may have to exhibit in anti-social behavior. As the popularity of the sport soars this side of the Atlantic, MLS will have to keep a close eye on the situation. The league has increased its revenue, marquee signings and style of play some would say that recent crowd trouble is a black eye on the league. The rest of the football world would probably say “Welcome to the Club.”