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Soccer and the Enduring Nonsense of Race

November 1, 2021
in Public Seminar

Soccer star Marko Arnautović made headlines last week, less for the goal he scored in the 89th minute of his native Austria’s European Cup game against North Macedonia than for his post-goal antics.

Soccer celebrations often mix joy and aggression. But it quickly became clear to television viewers that Arnautović, criticized as the “bad boy” of Austrian soccer, was moving further towards aggression than his teammates could tolerate. As Arnautović visibly berated North Macedonia’s left wing-back Ezgjan Alioski in Serbian, a language that both players know, Austrian team captain David Alaba intervened, grabbing his teammate by the cheeks to force him to stop speaking. Serbian speakers who analyzed video of the incident claim that Arnautović insulted Alioski’s mother with a commonly used regional profanity: he also used a derogatory epithet for “Albanian” in Serbian.

Later, Arnautović apologized via an English-language Instagram “story.” He stated that he is “not a racist” and that he has “friends in almost every country,” before writing the equivalent of “excuse me” in both Serbian and Albanian. Nevertheless, North Macedonia promptly requested that UEFA impose the strictest penalties in response; UEFA responded with a one-game suspension for the Austrian striker, who missed his team’s match against the Netherlands on Thursday, June 17.

UEFA’s decision to impose only a one-game suspension, the penalty for a generic “insult,” rather than the minimum 10-game suspension required by UEFA’s disciplinary regulations for insulting “the human dignity of a person or group of persons on whatever grounds, including skin color, race, religion, ethnic origin, gender or sexual orientation” means that UEFA did not accept North Macedonia’s allegation that Arnautović’s comments represented a racial or ethnic slur.