BUENOS AIRES -- An apparent racial slur by an Argentine player against a black Brazilian rival during an international soccer match last week has led to a diplomatic spat between the two countries.
But, unfortunately, the way it ended will not help stop the growing wave of racism in soccer stadiums everywhere.
The April 13 incident took place in Brazil during a Libertadores Cup match between Quilmes, of Argentina, and the local team from So Paulo, when Argentine player Leandro Desabato reportedly yelled a racial insult at rival player Paulo Grafite.
It was the kind of thing players do all the time to throw their rivals off balance, the Argentine player explained afterward.
But to everybody's surprise, Brazilian police stormed into the Argentine team's locker room as soon as the match ended and arrested Desabato on charges of "racial discrimination."
The Brazilian player had filed a complaint during half-time, and a judge had acted upon it immediately.
The incident triggered front-page headlines in both countries.
Brazil, with a significant black population, rallied in support of its player.
In Argentina, where there are very few blacks, most opinion-makers sided with their countryman, saying it was an everyday occurrence in the world of competitive sports, which should not be taken as an intentional racist statement.
As the Argentine player was spending the night in jail -- his team's lawyers didn't have enough cash at hand that late at night to pay the $3,879 bond -- the Brazilian government issued a statement accusing the Argentine player of "serious racist attitudes," which it said are "one more step in the escalation of discrimination against players of African descent."
Julio Grondona, the head of Argentina's Soccer Federation (AFA), a high-profile figure in one of the world's most soccer-crazy countries, countered that Desabato -- who was released the next morning and flew immediately home -- "doesn't owe any apologies to anybody, because he didn't do anything."
He added, "I think there was bad faith on the part of the Brazilian player when he pressed charges."
Argentine soccer legend Diego Armando Maradona, perhaps the best-known soccer player in the world, agreed.
"There's racism everywhere. If they have that problem in Brazil, they should solve it outside the soccer field. I'm 100 percent behind Desabato," Maradona was quoted as saying to the Argentine daily La Razon.
Argentine officials, in more diplomatic terms, followed the same line.
When I asked Mauricio Macri, the president of Boca Juniors, Argentina's most prominent soccer team, about the incident, he echoed the conventional wisdom in his country, although with a caveat. Macri, who is also a prominent opposition politician, said one has to take into account that Desabato's racial slur was not made publicly.
"When soccer fans display banners that are anti-Semitic, for instance, they deserve to be arrested, because it's something done in public," Macri said. "But when a soccer player says something privately to another in the heat of the match, it's different. It's not like Desabato had made those statements on television."
Macri added, "What I didn't like is that he didn't apologize afterward. I would have asked him to apologize."
My conclusion: Far from justifying his behavior, Argentina should be imposing a major fine on Desabato. It's the only way to stop an escalating wave of racism that is expanding not only in this part of the world, but also -- if not more -- in Europe.
Last weekend, fans of the Real Madrid soccer club in Spain were charged with fines of up to $78,000 for making what they claimed to be monkey sounds whenever black players of the opposing team touched the ball during a game against Levante.
And fans of Italy's Lazio team have been subject to repeated fines for chanting anti-Semitic slogans, and waving Nazi signs. Lazio player Paolo DiCancio recently celebrated a goal raising his right hand with a fascist salute to the cameras.
It's not funny anymore. Tolerating racist behavior, such as Argentina did last week, will only encourage more racism.
Well done, Grafite! I wish more of your colleagues would do the same.
X Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.