Nigerian footballer Anthony Nwakaeme has adopted a novel approach to tackling racism by saying that the best way to disarm any abusers is by smiling at them.
The 32-year-old, who currently plays for Turkey’s Trabzonspor, believes the issue is spreading in football despite recent campaigns by Fifa, Uefa and a host of others, such as Premier League footballers taking the knee, to combat it.
After 11 years playing across Europe, including spells in Romania and Israel, he believes that tackling the problem head on is the best way ahead.
“Racism is in sports and growing bigger in football,” Nwakaeme told BBC Sport Africa. “It will continue to spread everywhere and I can’t confidently say when it can be kicked out of football.”
The forward recounts an incident from his time in Israel, which he says has armed him for the ongoing fight against what he calls a ‘societal problem’.
“I experienced racism few years ago when I played in Israel with my team [Hapoel Be’er Sheva] away to Maccabi Haifa,” he explained. “Right there on the pitch, I decided I was not going to let those abusing me win.
“The Maccabi Haifa fans were making monkey noises and booing me, then I turned, looked straight at them and then I smiled.”
“As soon as they saw my reaction, they realised that what they had done hadn’t affected me in anyway, so they started applauding me, cheering and singing my name.”
Nwakaeme said the gesture empowered him to deal with the issue, determined as he was not to give the group the satisfaction of seeing him react negatively.
“Sometimes instead of fighting you, I’ll avoid (confronting) you,” he added. “That was exactly what happened there.”
“I know I could have challenged them or stopped the game in my own way, but I was enjoying myself on the pitch, I felt powerful and I was making life difficult for their team.
“I wasn’t going to let them distract me or put me down. I wouldn’t allow anyone to make me feel less of a man by reacting negatively.
“Once they noticed I wasn’t falling or dropping to that level of anger or hatred, they began to cheer me up. Why should I let them win?
“I understand that not many footballers can handle it that way, but personally I don’t pay attention to those things because racism is a societal problem.”
During his three-year spell at Hapoel Be’er Sheva, where he scored 43 goals in 120 appearances after joining in 2015 (from rivals Hapoel Ra’anana), he won three successive league titles and twice lifted the Israeli Cup.
His scoring form in Israel caught the attention of Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr and earned a call-up to the Super Eagles squad for their 2018 World Cup qualifiers in August 2017.
Nwakaeme was an unused substitute in three games before making his debut against Algeria in November.
Despite the lure of big money from China and of course the threat of racism itself, the player chose to stay in Europe in 2018 when joining Turkish club Trabzonspor.
After over a decade in Europe, Nwakaeme said football authorities cannot solve racism issues alone because it is a wider problem.
“The truth is that racism didn’t start with football, it started many years ago,” he said.
“We can see it in everyday life and that clearly shows it’s a problem that is way more than just football. It’s a societal problem and we cannot fix it without fixing society.
“You can see the past years they [Fifa and Uefa] have been fighting racism… but season after season there are incidents. As much as the authorities continue to campaign and tackle it with mere threats, before the end of the season it will continue rear its head again somehow.
“Personally, I’ve made up my mind not to pay attention to abuses, if you like me or you don’t like me, that’s your problem.
“Whether you’re being racist to me it’s also your problem. I’m here to play football and enjoy myself at the same time, that’s the most important thing for me.”