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Countering Racism with World Cup Goodwill

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The World Cup starts this week in Germany with 32 nations competing for soccer's most coveted trophy. More than 30 billion accumulative TV viewers will watch at least part of the month-long contest, making the cup by far the world's most popular TV sporting event.

In spite of this popularity, international soccer also has a darker side. As top players move around the world, many black athletes face racist insults and attacks on some European fields. There are concerns that black players and fans might have the same kind of trouble during the World Cup.

Sean Wilsey is co-Editor of The Thinking Fans Guide to The World Cup. Excerpts from the book are featured in this month's National Geographic cover story. We spoke about the troubling aspect of racism in the sport. But we started our discussion with why the U.S. hasn't quite caught on to the world's passion for the game.

Mr. SEAN WILSEY (Author, The Thinking Fans Guide to The World Cup): I think the best reason I can come up with is that we don't like games that can't be interrupted. And soccer basically happens in two really long 45-minute halves with no breaks. And so there's no opportunity A, for advertisers to do a commercial, or to get up and leave at any point. So you're pretty much stuck there for the whole time.

GORDON: Here's what's interesting though. I'm 45-years-old now and I can recall when I was growing up the United States was introduced to Pele and we were told that this was a wonderful sport, and this man was a fantastic athlete. And one would have believed that by now it would have caught on.

Mr. WILSEY: I know, you would think so. I mean, in a funny way, it's probably caught on more than we quite realize. It's definitely a huge youth sport, and it doesn't always translate into something that people are passionate about watching on TV.

GORDON: Let me ask you as relates to the world and the World Cup, there are areas of the world where we have seen warring that has gone on for years, three-and-a-half, if you will, stop during this time.

Mr. WILSEY: Oh, absolutely. There's a great piece in the National Geographic about Cote d'Ivoire - which is an African Nation that has been having civil war for a long time - and how basically the fact that Cote d'Ivoire is qualified for the first time ever for the World Cup is this opportunity that they seem to be taking to actually start talking instead of resorting to violence.

GORDON: Here's the other interesting aspect of it, again missed on Americans, is the business of soccer and the huge amounts of money that not only go though the sport, but the marketing of these athletes outside of the United States.

Mr. WILSEY: Yeah. I think David Beckham is making $35 million to play for Real Madrid in Spain. And lord knows what his marketing income is for all the ads and sponsorship that he has. But there's a lot of money in soccer.

GORDON: Let me take you to the question of racism. As I said, many people - for many people it was brought to light by the excellent television essay Bryant Gumbel did on Real Sports that really gave you a close-up look at what many Africans and Latin players - Latin American players were going through in European countries, in Brazil and other places, where they literally were being pelted by bananas, being accosted by fans, being teased with monkeys sounds.

This has gone on, quite frankly, in light of all the soccer originations looking on, with much of the world looking on, and until the last year-and-a-half, very little fanfare about stopping it.

Mr. WILSEY: Yeah. Because racism exists everywhere, and it certainly still exists in this country. And in a weird way you can look at that and say, well, okay, at least we can see that this is who bad it is, and it gives you like a really direct way to address it.

But whether or not - I mean, you can stop those people from going to matches and you take away their banners, and there are things that you can do; but whether or not you can actually change the underlying mindset that creates that is like a much bigger issue and probably has a lot to do with - I think the most racist fans tend to come from countries that are really homogenous.

GORDON: And what we are seeing is a growing number of African players and Latin American players now playing on teams that, as you suggested, had been homogenized for years and years and years; and even on their on team sometimes, from their own fans, they are seeing this kind of vile language and protest go on from fans.

Mr. WILSEY: Right. You know, I think the biggest positive thing that maybe will change that is that the players themselves, by and large, get along really well and play together really well. When you play with somebody and you're on the same team with someone, even if you come from like a homogenous society where everybody you ever saw growing up was blonde or everybody that you ever saw growing up was black, you're going to have to start seeing other people from places.

GORDON: This is a real foxhole mentality that takes over?

Mr. WILSEY: Yeah, exactly. And I think that the players who are really heroes are the people who are going to able to change that with their own fans.

GORDON: How much do you believe with the world watching the World Cup, and it seems to have gotten - at least here in the United States a bit more, particularly with every two seconds ESPN pushing it - the idea that you have seen it marketed better here. How do you believe with the world watching, we're going to either see this kind of dirty racism play itself out or whether or not this can be the beginnings of change?

Mr. WILSEY: I think it really can be the beginnings of a change. I think that there may be some incidences outside of the stadiums, but I think people really go to the World Cup with a lot good will. And it's a really long, really fun tournament, where you get to see a lot of good soccer and you see more people from places in the world than you're going to see anywhere else.

And so I really do deeply believe that it can be a positive thing and will be.

GORDON: Well, let's certainly hope so. We don't want any violence or any ill behavior tomorrow, what can be, as you suggest, particularly with the way we see the world today, a grand event.

Sean Wilsey, we should note, again, your book The Thinking Fan's Guide to The World Cup and also excerpts from that in form of many articles, if you will, umbrella with your introduction in the National Geographic, The Beautiful Game: Why Soccer Rules the World. We thank you so much.

Mr. WILSEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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