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Abel Xavier played for the Portuguese national team and for twelve clubs in eight different countries. In an interview with the Portuguese professional footballers association SJPF he talks about racism and the role of the union.


Abel Xavier, Portuguese of African descent (born in Nampula, Mozambique on 30 November 1972), forged his career in Europe and ended it in the United States. He was selected for the Portuguese national team (with 20 caps and 2 goals), played in one European Championship and one World Cup and became an icon of his generation; the result of a strong personality, a characteristic image and remarkable eloquence on topics ranging from football to religion.


Abel Xavier considers himself to be a citizen of the world and accepted the challenge of being the SJPF's ambassador for the Week Against Racism and Violence in Sport, from 24 February to 2 March.


We got the impression that you accepted the invitation to be the ambassador with great enthusiasm.

'I have a lot of time and respect for people and institutions that fight for noble causes. I accepted the invitation of the Professional Footballers' Union and president Joaquim Evangelista with great satisfaction.' 


Has racism affected you in your career?

'We cannot hide from the truth: there is racism in various sectors of society. What sometimes happens in football is that certain people take advantage of this great industry to spread certain behaviours that simply should not exist in the 21st century. I have noticed the racism, for obvious reasons. Even before becoming a football player, during my childhood... My family, like many other African families arriving in Portugal, felt the discrimination. Being judged and not having access to the same things due to skin colour is not fair. What exists in Portugal in football is essentially club rivalry. Racism is no longer a social problem. When I arrived in Portugal in 1975, thousands of other people were also arriving and going to live in illegal, underground neighbourhoods. It is true that these people closed themselves off into close-knit communities but when they did try to integrate, they came up against discrimination.'




Was there a time when this was also felt on the pitch, taking all the pleasure out of the game?

'There were a few episodes, but mostly we need to distinguish between club and racist fanaticism and xenophobia. Often what happens between peers is born out of the heat of the game, the intensity of the moment. It is basically a player doing anything to gain an advantage over his opponent; in the end it is very similar to faking a foul to deceive the referee... Sometimes this is taken too far and, naturally, I am in favour of disciplinary measures in these cases.'


'If we talk about cases of racism among the fans, we're often talking about people who infiltrate the crowds and attempt to amplify certain behaviours. Back to the question, I never really gave importance to any one of these cases, because as a player I was very focused on my job on the pitch.'


Who should try to prevent racism: the players or the institutions?

'It's always the people that can take action. We live in a global world and we cannot control everything, but we have to find the people who are truly concerned about these problems and have a message to pass on. We need to spread this message and we have to take advantage of the power of information, because only then can we get to where racism is truly rooted. Then we have to place the onus on ourselves. For example, we have to have the courage to pass the message on to the person beside us in the stadium who is behaving inappropriately in this way.'


There is much talk of how important it is to integrate, or of how to welcome foreigners. How did you manage to adapt?

'When you arrive in a foreign country, the secret is to have the capacity to integrate and this comes primarily from knowing the language from the outset. We must strive and force ourselves and sometimes that means making the effort to learn. All too often there are players who are excluded simply because they do not make enough effort to integrate, to speak the local language and interact with the local people...'


'When I went to Holland, I wanted to start to speak Dutch, when I went to Turkey I also wanted to learn the Turkish language, in Italy I spoke Italian... If a player makes this effort, it is noticed and greatly appreciated by the local people welcoming us.'


Despite everything, or at least based on the cases that have been occurring, is Portugal an exemplary country with regard to racism?

'I think so, but we have to be proactive. We are the ones who have the responsibility of appealing to the conscience of people. Nowadays the majority of citizens have quite difficult lives and are therefore easily tempted by certain behaviours or manifestations that they would not normally succumb to under other circumstances. Portugal has a history of integration, but we cannot rest on our laurels and wait for something to happen to take action.'


You played in so many countries, where did you experience racism?

'I noticed a very strange situation in England. 12 years ago, when I went to Everton, I noticed that the city of Liverpool was divided between Everton and Liverpool for reasons of ideology, culture and education. Everton was a racist club, Liverpool, where I also got to play, was not. And it was football that helped Everton to change. I was one of the first black players to play for Everton while John Barnes, who is black, was one of the great players and even captain of Liverpool.'


'One day I was watching the game from the bench in the Everton stadium when I noticed that there wasn't a single black fan in the crowd. And we are talking about 12 years ago. I had to interact with the fans and they then started to warm to me. Racism is an archaic phenomenon and it is down to us to take action for social integration.'


'We need to generate better people. My career as a footballer was a means to making me a better person, more evolved, open, liberal and valued. I am now better educated than if I had gotten a diploma. I have travelled, I have learned and I have a different way of thinking. I have had the opportunity to develop a very rich, varied career that is quite different from the majority of my colleagues. I was a nomad, I learned a lot and I know it will help me to educate my children.'


Have you had times in your career when you needed help from the union?

'The union has helped me through a series of disciplinary measures I had when playing for the national team. It is important to feel that we have support when we are out of our country. We are trying to represent and dignify the name of Portugal and it is right that we should be supported in that role. A player may feel isolated at times, sometimes he needs help with work issues, but the ideal situation is to distance yourself from these problems so that you perform to your best. This help is there, but sometimes the player feels powerless to join in the fight because of his problems. Players need to know that if they really want, they have the power to stop the football industry. It is good that all the players, all the main references of the major championships at a European level, have this notion and understand that all together, united, they can be very powerful.'


Do you recognise the players' union capacity to take action?

'The players' union is an institution that plays a dominant role, because it defends and protects those who are the most important pillars of this sport: the footballers themselves. There are other important stakeholders whose contributions and expertise are needed to turn football into the great global sport that it is, but it's the players who are at the source of everything. There are serious problems today in the management of the majority of clubs and players are suffering the consequences – in this context the union has done a remarkable job in many practical situations; and this work must be recognised by all the entities of football.'