Abuse by Gremio fans highlights the fact that racism is doing just fine in Brazil

At first it was hard to work out what exactly was going on. The Copa do Brasil first leg tie between Grêmio and Santos at the Arena do Grêmio in Porto Alegre two weeks ago was dwindling limply to a close, with the visiting team leading 2-0, when all of a sudden Santos goalkeeper Aranha started screaming and pointing at the crowd behind his goal, visibly upset. When the TV cameras zoomed in, they revealed a group of young men, some black, some white, shouting and jumping up and down and moving their arms in imitation of monkeys. Elsewhere in the ground, a well-dressed young woman was filmed cupping her hand around her mouth and shouting “macaco, macaco” (“monkey”) in Aranha’s direction.

“When they called me a ‘stinking black’ and ‘black trash’ I put up with it, but when they started making monkey noises, it was too much,” said Aranha after the game.

Veteran Grêmio player Zé Roberto supported Aranha. “Unfortunately we live in a racist country,” he said. “Brazil is a place where this still happens a lot.”

It certainly seems to happen a lot in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state, the part of the country where the influence of historic European immigration is strongest. Supporters shouted “get back to the circus” and “you belong in the jungle” at referee Marcio Chagas de Silva during at a game between Esportivo and Veranopolis in the Rio Grande do Sul state championship in March this year. A bunch of bananas was left on his car after the match. Esportivo was fined and docked nine points, although the penalty eventually shrunk to three. At the Grêmio – Internacional clássico in March, a Grêmio fan made monkey noises at black Inter defender Paulão after the final whistle. The club was fined $35,000 – later reduced to $4,500.

But racism in Brazilian soccer is hardly restricted to the south. Also in March, visiting Santos midfielder Arouca was startled to hear a chorus of monkey noises from the terraces as he was interviewed after a game against Mogi Mirim. The home club was fined $22,000.

Such cases come as a shock to many Brazilians, who like to think of their country as an ethnic melting pot, where racism does not exist and Brazilians of all colors mix together happily, whether it is on the beach or at the soccer stadium. According to the 2010 census, 47 percent of Brazilians consider themselves to be white, 7.6 percent declare themselves to be black, and 43 percent believe themselves to be “pardo” (a mixture of the two).

“Every Brazilian, even the most lilywhite and golden haired, carries in his soul, if not his soul and his body…the color, or at least a hint of the color, of the indigenous people of the country, or the negro,” wrote the anthropologist Gilberto Freyre in his masterpiece A Casa Grande e A Senzala (which translates as “The Big House and the Slave Quarters” but was titled “The Masters and The Slaves” in its English language version) in the 1930s.

To some, the idea that Brazil is a paradise of racial intermingling is even a source of national pride. During the “We’re all monkeys” anti-racism campaign led by Neymar and Daniel Alves in April, which began after Alves had picked up a banana thrown at him during a game in Spain and eaten it, the sports site of the country’s biggest broadcaster, TV Globo, plastered an article boasting of Brazil’s racial progressiveness all over its front page. “This country has a thousand problems. But there is something that we can teach you foreigners – and it’s not just football,” the article trumpeted, before claiming that Brazil was “incapable, or almost always incapable, of accepting intolerance.”

A few months later, the stories of Aranha and Arouca and Chagas have taken a hammer to this fanciful claim.

When Cruzeiro midfielder Tinga endured a torrent of racial abuse while playing against Peruvian club Real Garcilaso in Huancayo in the Copa Libertadores in February, the incident sparked outcry in Brazil, with everyone from president Dilma Rousseff to fans of rival clubs quick to support the player and criticize the Peruvian fans. But Tinga wanted to talk about the situation in Brazil. “You can see it in people’s eyes. Look, there goes the black guy with the white, blonde girlfriend. In Brazil there is so much prejudice, not just racial, but also social,” he told Globo. “In Brazil we talk about equality, but we hide our prejudice,” he said in another interview. “We pretend that everyone is equal.”

In such a climate, a strong response was surely required against the racist behavior of the Grêmio fans, and the STJD, Brazil’s sporting justice court, was quick to throw the book at the club. At a disciplinary hearing last Wednesday, Grêmio was kicked out of the Copa do Brasil and fined $22,000. The decision was applauded by FIFA president Sepp Blatter. “I’ve said football must be stronger in tackling racism. Brazil has sent the right message,” he tweeted.

Grêmio, however, has promised to appeal. “We did everything possible to identify the guilty parties and deliver them to the police,” said club president Fabio Koff, and 10 of the supporters involved have now been banned from attending Grêmio matches. Beyond that, runs Grêmio’s argument, how can the club be held responsible for the behavior of a handful of fans among a crowd of 30,000?

Brazilian sporting law, however, is based on exactly this concept. “Brazil sporting regulations follow the model established in major international sporting regulations … in the sporting environment, fans and clubs are considered inseparable: one is a manifestation and a dimension of the other. They are two sides of the same coin,” STJD president Caio Cesar Rocha wrote in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper after the decision.

Not all agree, however. “The sporting courts … constitute a form of collective punishment that ignores one of the most elementary principles of the modern legal system, which is that no punishment should affect anyone other than the guilty party,” wrote the philosopher Helio Schwartsman in the same newspaper.

Unfortunately, however, punishment of the individual fans involved in Brazil’s examples of soccer racism is considerably rarer than the sentencing of the clubs. No arrests were made in either the Marcio Chagas or the Paulão incidents. Investigations are ongoing in the Aranha case.

At least one of those involved, Patricia Moreira, the young woman seen yelling “macaco” at Aranha, has been punished, though not by any legal mechanism. Moreira, who says she is not a racist but simply got carried away in the heat of the moment, was suspended from her job as a dental assistant soon after the incident, and has had bricks thrown at her house and received death threats. “I’m in favor of stamping out racism,” she said on TV this week. “I want to apologize to Aranha, and give him a hug to show him I’m not a bad person.”

While there is undoubtedly a considerable amount of hypocrisy involved in the STJD sentence – there is little difference between this case and events in Mogi Mirim, for example, while the Brazilian sporting authorities seem in no hurry to tackle the homophobic abuse which forms such a large part of the repertoire of soccer fans here – any public sympathy towards Grêmio may have evaporated with the declarations of a number of former and current directors of the club.

“Do you want to know why the incident wasn’t in the referee’s report? Because it didn’t happen. It was just Aranha making a scene,” said one director, Adalberto Preis. “Raping four children in a bathroom would cause less of a scandal than what’s happened to this girl,” said another, Nestor Hein.

The prize, however, goes to former president Luiz Carlos Silveira Martins. “Why don’t we investigate Aranha’s past to see what’s there. This little saint, this poor baby that he is … Aranha didn’t let the game flow. He interrupted the game the whole time. Then he hears a little shout, poor thing … and then he goes and puts on this theater show.”

No doubt puzzlingly for Mr. Preis and Mr. Martins, another such theater show took place last Sunday, at a Serie D game in the state of Minas Gerais in the south east of Brazil. “When I heard the word monkey for the third time, I called the referee over, but he did nothing,” Operario goalkeeper Igor told the Folha de São Paulo this week. “I was blind with rage, so I took the ball and kicked it into the stands. He sent me off.”

The howls of outrage of Grêmio fans and directors, along with the complaints of a number of Rio Grande do Sul based journalists, show just how dangerous blinkered passion for a soccer club can be. Hypocritical or not, Grêmio’s punishment has taken the debate over racism in Brazilian soccer and wider society to a new level, and in doing so sent a warning to those who still believe that it is acceptable to use skin color and ethnic background as an insult. If Grêmio’s fans and directors were able to see beyond their own navels, perhaps they would realize that that can only be a step forward.