Why you should care

Racism may be impossible to eliminate, but getting it out of public sports arenas is a worthy goal, and maybe even achievable.

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Ma-ca-co! Ma-ca-co!” With the video slowed down, the vitriol spews from her mouth like arrows, and they point accusingly at the alleged progress Brazil has made against racism in soccer. One slow-motion video capture left no doubt: Brazil still has a major problem.

Yet after years of turning a blind eye and wrist-slapping, Brazil may be poised finally to wield a stick to combat it. The incident was last month, when Patrícia Moreira, a young fan of the team Grêmio, was caught cursing Aranha, the black goalie of the opposing team, Santos. The case went to court, and Grêmio has been banned from the Brazil Cup.

Nowhere is the racial divide so piercingly in-your-face as on the soccer fields.

Like most countries with a dark history of slavery, Brazil struggles to tackle the stubborn roots of racism. It’s evident everywhere: the uneven decline of poverty across racial lines, incarceration rates, homicide rates and every other plausible measure of Brazil.

But perhaps nowhere is the racial divide so piercingly in-your-face as on the soccer fields.

Of course, it’s not just Brazil, but also in Italy, Russia, Belgium, Spain and England. The list goes on. On the field, between players, it’s easier to handle. But coming from the huddled masses, evidence can be slippery, which makes the Moreira incident notable, as the camera hides nothing.

In Brazil, the jeer macaco, which means monkey in Portuguese, carries the cultural weight that the N-word does in America.

Indeed, the image of Moreira shouting “macaco” is eerily similar to a young woman shouting at one of the Little Rock Nine in 1957, in a photo called “The Photo That Exposed Segregation.” Will the image of Moreira be remembered as “The GIF that Exposed Racism in Brazilian Soccer”?

It’s not the first high-profile incident to show the strains between the “beautiful game” and racism. It’s not even the first high-profile incident this year. In April, Brazilian defender Daniel Alves was about to make a corner kick for Barcelona when a fan threw a banana onto the pitch directly in front of him. In one smooth movement, Alves grabbed the banana, peeled it, and popped it into his mouth, still chewing as he made the kick — a provocative statement against the macaco slur.

Over the years, sideline racism has caused players of color to refuse to continue play, to openly respond to the crowd or to plead with the referees to make it stop.

…the first time it’s held a Brazilian team responsible for racist words of a fan.

Even the Brazilian superstar Neymar attempted to fight back against macaco racism, tweeting the day after the Alves incident, “Somos todos macacos” — We are all monkeys.

As for the most recent Grêmio case, Moreira’s lawyer has argued that the term “macaco” is “only used anymore within soccer” and that it does not denote racism. He would, since in Brazil racist remarks can lead to years of jail time.

Of greater potential impact: CBF, the Brazilian Football Confederation, banned the Grêmio team entirely from playing in the Brazil Cup, the first time it’s held a Brazilian team responsible for racist words of a fan. And the fallout has been ugly. On Friday, Moreira’s home was burned to the ground.

Other fans of Grêmio have taken the CBF to court, arguing that the team should not be banned for the acts of one fan, which cannot possibly represent the views of the whole fan base. The judge threw out the case, saying only the team could bring action, which it has, resulting in a temporary suspension of the entire Brazil Cup tournament.

“It’s a big thing, and there are a lot of politics involved,” said one fan who asked not to use his name given the violence that’s occurred. “Grêmio may be the first one [to be banned for racism], but won’t be the last one.”

Grêmio has always had a bit of a reputation for being racist. I found this out only after buying a Grêmio T-shirt on my first night in Brazil. Grêmio was playing rival team Internacional in a clash known as a Grenal. In a room full of fans from each side, my friend Rafa told me I had to choose, and I chose Grêmio.

That was in 2009. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the team and its complex, convoluted history of racism. In the past, Grêmio excluded players of color from the team. Inter formed in opposition to this and was the first of the two teams to have a black player. Inter embraced the racist jeers of Grêmio fans at the time, and in perhaps an ill-advised attempt at spin, the Inter mascot became a dancing monkey in a red jersey. Emblazoned on the back of his red jersey: Escurinho, or Blackie, a name selected by an online poll of Inter’s fans.

Nothing is more racist than having the symbol of a monkey called Blackie that is treated as the great idol of Internacional.

So for years, these racist chants of macaco by Grêmio fans have been allowed and even embraced by not only Inter but the CBF. Which makes the recent decision to ban Grêmio a watershed moment in Brazilian soccer history. And absolutely shocking to Grêmio fans.

In the words of Grêmio vice president Renato Moreira, “Nothing is more racist than having the symbol of a monkey called Blackie that is treated as the great idol of Internacional.”

The controversy may seem surprising, since Brazil is one of the most racially blended cultures in the world. Who is black and who is white is culturally irrelevant to many Brazilians, perhaps even more so to the more than 43 percent of Brazilians who identify as pardo, or mixed race.

But that ethnic blending has not prevented black/white racism, which seems to pop out at the most feverish junctures of adrenaline and pride. For Brazil, that moment is soccer.

Even Pelé, Brazil’s greatest star of all time and a player of color, seems to have grown accustomed to racism in soccer. He told Reuters Brasil, “I think it must be curbed, but up to a level. They are natural explosions that we are not going to be able to change.” Even Alves once called racism in soccer “a lost war.”

With Grêmio’s ban sending shockwaves through the futebol community, though, the CBF may have finally taken up the fight against racism in earnest, and could prove Alves wrong.

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