Sulley Muntari

Week 185 (29 April - 5 May 2017)

Last weekend, Ghanaian footballer Sulley Muntari made a brave and powerful statement in the latest instance of football’s ongoing battle with racism.

From the first whistle of his Serie A league game against Cagliari, the 32-year-old Pescara midfielder was the victim of repetitive racial abuse from opposition fans. Whilst Muntari’s case is an uncomfortable reminder that football is still some way off eradicating racism from the game, his exemplary handling of the situation should serve as an inspiration to all those who are faced with discrimination in sport.

Muntari was subject to continuous racist chants from a section of the Cagliari supporters, yet he was booked for dissent after complaining to the referee. He then walked off the pitch in protest, which saw him receive a second yellow card, sparking great controversy. After the game he explained: “I was trying to reason with them (the fans), but the referee told me to leave them alone. That’s when I got angry. Because rather than stop the game, he decided to punish me… The fans were wrong, but the referee had to act differently, not accuse me of causing trouble. I am the victim here. If the officials begin actually stopping games when this happens, I am convinced it won’t happen again.”

Despite their abuse understandably upsetting Muntari, the Ghanaian offered his shirt to one of the children involved with the racist chanting. His actions communicated a poignant message of forgiveness and highlighted the importance of teaching inclusivity and tolerance to a younger and more impressionable audience. Explaining his decision, Muntari said: “They were chanting against me from the start, then in the first half I saw in the group there were some children and the parents said nothing… So I turned to the parents and gave them my jersey, to set the example.”

The controversy with the Muntari case heightened when the Serie A disciplinary panel said they would not be punishing Cagliari and that Muntari would serve the usual suspension for receiving a red card. In response to this, the global football community have united against Italian football’s response, showing a cohesive effort to eliminate one of the sport’s greatest ills. 

In a powerful statement, the world football players' union FIFPro said: "Muntari was well within his rights to approach the referee… Players should feel comfortable bringing any issue to the attention of the referee, especially one as significant as allegations of racism in the workplace… We urge Italian authorities to hear Muntari's version of events, investigate why the situation was mismanaged, and take firm action to ensure this never happens again."

Support for Muntari has been widespread, with anti-discrimination campaigners Kick It Out describing the Italian authorities’ decision to not punish Cagliari as “gutless”, and BBC Sport pundit and independent trustee of Kick It Out, Garth Crooks, has urged black players to strike if Muntari's ban is not lifted. On a matter that clearly needs addressing, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said FIFA needed to pay greater attention to the persistent problem of racism at football matches, and that his office had been in touch with football’s world governing body.

Should the Italian football authorities stand by their decision, their reputation will suffer long-term damage. Muntari’s personal strength and global football’s ensuing unity communicate the resilient message that discrimination should always be treated with a zero tolerance policy and that, one day, it will only exist as a part of football’s history that we would rather forget.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons