“Willy Gnonto, Willy Gnonto / He eats spaghetti / He drinks Moretti / His cock’s fucking massive.”
When Wilfried Gnonto scored for Leeds United in their 1-1 draw against West Ham United at the beginning of this month, it should have been a moment for him to cherish. Leeds have struggled for consistency this season and the now-19-year-old Italian forward has been a rare spark of excitement for the fans.
Gnonto’s first goal for the club was supposed to strengthen his bond with those supporters. However, a section of the crowd at Elland Road felt it appropriate to celebrate by singing, to the tune of La Bamba, about the supposed size of his penis.
Amad Diallo is excelling at Sunderland in the Championship, on loan from Manchester United. He has been subjected to the same treatment. Before the 3-0 victory over Millwall on December 3, the winger released a video on Sunderland’s social media channels asking for it to stop.
— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) December 3, 2022
Before the 2-1 defeat to Aston Villa last Friday, Leeds head coach Jesse Marsch put out a similar message regarding the Gnonto chant. It was however sung again after his two goals in the FA Cup replay win over Cardiff City, but not as loudly.
“I love how much the fans love him,” Marsch said. “Is there a way to modify it to be as passionate but more respectful? That’s what I would say.”
Don’t be surprised. This is far from the first time chants of this nature have been directed towards black players.
Shortly after Romelu Lukaku joined from Everton in the summer of 2017, Manchester United supporters started referring to him as their “Belgian scoring genius with a 24-inch penis”. Lukaku released a statement through the club that said “fans have meant well with their songs, but let’s move on together”. After that was ignored, his agent at the time, Mino Raiola, reiterated to The Times “he (Lukaku) would like this song to stop”.
When Ivan Toney was playing for Peterborough United in 2019, the now-Brentford striker requested “a new family version” of a chant about him that had similar lyrics to the ones sung more recently regarding Gnonto and Amad.
Don’t forget the fan who saw no problem hanging up an offensive banner of Divock Origi at the 2019 Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.
The supporter escaped unpunished until the banner reappeared at Liverpool’s Champions League group game away to the Belgian club Genk a few months later. He was temporarily suspended from attending Liverpool matches, but the ban was lifted after he agreed to attend a session with the club’s community programme and undergo an education course with the anti-discrimination group Kick It Out.
Black players are stepping forward to publicly voice their displeasure about these chants, so why are they being ignored?
There will be people who argue telling a black man he has a large penis is a compliment, but they do not understand, or maybe just don’t care, these chants are deeply offensive and racist.
Obioma Ugoala is a stage actor and the author of a book titled The Problem With My Normal Penis.
Ugoala says people need to be educated about the historical context of “the myth of the black penis”.
“This language dehumanises black players by saying that not only are they exceptional, but they are weird and animalistic,” he tells The Athletic. “That language was the very language that allowed the transatlantic slave trade to take place because of eugenics that said, ‘Actually, these people are less than the rest of us in America’ and, ‘You can’t have sex with a black man because they are beasts’.
“Once you’re made aware of it, you can no longer be ignorant. It shouldn’t be something that we’re having a continual conversation over. Are we going to say enough is enough?
“Why do we feel we need to keep using those chants? What is it satisfying in us to abuse a player in this way? Do you see them as a player who you support or do you see them as a tool or as a puppet that you use? Do you not see them as human?
“Unfortunately, it’s this inability to see the players as human that allows people to turn on our national team when we had that incident at Euro 2020 — because you have dehumanised them to a degree that they don’t deserve your compassion.”
Ugoala is referencing the most recent European Championship final between Italy and England. Three young black players, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, missed penalties as England lost in a shootout and were racially abused on social media afterwards.
Some people might perceive chants about having a big penis to be harmless by comparison, but they have the same negative impact.
During a League Two match between Barrow and Colchester United in November, the latter’s head coach Matt Bloomfield heard a “racially-motivated comment” from a home fan being directed towards one of his players. Bloomfield reported it to the fourth official and the police were notified.
Colchester forward Frank Nouble’s identity was not revealed at the time, but he now wants to publicly discuss the impact these comments have.
“The ball went out for a throw-in and a fan said, ‘Nouble — hopefully he can control it with his big black cock’,” the former West Ham United and Ipswich Town striker tells The Athletic.
“After the game, the police came to our coach and asked me to come inside to the office of the Barrow manager. I was told there had been a chant about my penis and that they had found the individual on camera.”
The police arrested a 60-year-old man on suspicion of a racially aggravated public order offence. He was released on bail and the investigation found no reason to take further action.
“Those chants have lessened as the years have gone by, but five or six years ago they were constant about the size of your penis or what he has got hiding in his sock,” Nouble says.
“It doesn’t hurt you straight away because you think, ‘OK, it’s a bit of a joke for them’. It’s not damning in their eyes — if anything, (to them) it’s uplifting you. At the same time, there are historical connotations about it. My family and friends were saying this is a song that we don’t want to be hearing about.
“Whatever is chanted at you, you try to make it push you to your limits and outperform anything that’s said. But when you sit back and analyse the situation, especially now that I have got kids, I understand that these things can be hurtful and hit people’s state of mind. You realise that maybe this is not the right way to be celebrated in the sport that you play or in any walk of life.”
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Zavon Hines started his career at West Ham and went on to play for clubs including Coventry City, Burnley and Southend United. He was forced to retire at the age of 30 because of injury and was recently appointed as the lead under-15s coach at West Ham’s academy.
Hines recalls hearing such chants during matches too and feeling “confused” why “fans are being racist towards players from the teams they support”.
“We were in a period where it felt like you couldn’t really say much,” he tells The Athletic. “If we react in a certain way, we get classed as an angry black man. But certain things are not a joke when it comes to your background and your personal life.
“It’s nothing to do with them. It’s personal and private. They wouldn’t want anyone to be speaking about a family member like that, but then to us, they will say it is a compliment.”
Chants about the size of your penis become even more difficult to deal with when they start to spread through a crowd, and beyond. How are you supposed to react when your colleagues, people who you thought were your friends, join in?
“It comes back into the changing rooms, so the boys (team-mates) are singing it in front of you, and some days you don’t want to hear it,” Nouble says.
“It was seen as a sense of endearment and again, that is down to education and everyone’s got different cultures. If anything, I could sense jealousy from the boys that, ‘Oh, Frank’s got a song he might think makes him a big character in the changing room’. I’m comfortable in my own skin, but the next person might not be. That’s where people could be more considerate.”
It is sad to hear Nouble admit his team-mates would sing such chants at him, but he feels like “we are living in two different generations in the space of five years”. The 31-year-old believes high-profile players being prepared to use their platforms to speak out about racism has helped to raise awareness and change attitudes. If a team-mate behaved in that way now, he says he would challenge them “without even thinking about it”.
Unfortunately, Nouble’s experiences are not a one-off.
“There was a young player who went out on loan and he was getting a few chants,” Nouble says. “He told me and he was kind of laughing, but I could see by his eyes he wasn’t really happy about it.
“But when you’re in an environment with a group of lads, it’s hard for people to come out and express how they feel. You don’t want to go against what the majority think. I just told him, ‘Look, whatever you don’t feel comfortable about, you tell them straight away’.”
Hines can recall one of his team-mates being mocked.
“There was one particular player in the dressing room and every time he got in the shower they would go and look, or ask him to take his towel off,” he says. “When it’s every single day, you’re basically picking on this person.
“You could see on his face, (he was thinking) ‘It’s enough, just let me be’. But there was never a moment where they asked, ‘Do you feel uncomfortable?’.”
“There was always a passing comment. People might think a passing comment is nothing, but that’s what hits the most. That sticks in the player’s mind. He is thinking every time he walks past he’s going to get that same comment. I’m still close with that player now and I know for a fact he hated it.”
The Football Association released a statement last week explaining it had informed clubs that “it considers the ‘Rent Boy’ chant to be a breach of the FA rules”. Last year, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) confirmed it considered that term a homophobic slur and therefore a hate crime.
The same clarification is needed for chants about black players’ penises.
Despite the CPS guidelines stating that racist chanting is “the repeated uttering of words or sounds threatening, abusive or insulting to another person because of that person’s colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origin”, no action is yet being taken.
When contacted about this article by The Athletic, a spokesperson for the CPS said they would not able to answer which specific chants would constitute a hate crime and that they judge each case on a case-by-case basis. Should the police refer anything to the CPS, they would then make a decision based on their legal test — the two-stage Code for Crown Prosecutors. They pointed towards the legal guidance prosecutors would refer to when making a charging decision.
Premier League players powerfully took a knee before every match during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons to highlight racial inequality and addressing this issue is the next part of the journey to make football a more inclusive place.
Kick It Out has said it “would stress that racial stereotypes are harmful and offensive, irrespective of the intention to show support for a player” after Leeds fans were heard chanting about Gnonto as detailed at the start of this article, but there needs to be a greater willingness to tackle the problem from all of football’s key stakeholders.
“Maybe there should be a campaign where they have a short video that goes on TV,” Hines says. “If players explain their feelings, hopefully it will be a lot more impactful to people and they will understand.
“I’m just happy now there is room to actually speak up on these things and there are players, a lot braver than I probably was at the time, who actually want to say something. It’s getting a lot more airtime than it would have done before, which shows how quickly things can change.”
It feels unfair, though, to expect black players, who are the victims of these chants, to be solely responsible for educating people as to why they are offensive. Surely they should be protected and not forced to constantly relive that trauma?
“I don’t think that is an easy thing to ask a player,” Nouble says. “It’s difficult, but I would be prepared to do it and I would encourage other people to do the same.
“It’s a crazy world we live in that we allow certain things to happen. We wait for someone to really be affected by it mentally or, God forbid, do something to themselves for us to realise that this is terrible.”
It is important to recognise this issue is not just restricted to football.
Ugoala says he felt compelled to write The Problem With My Normal Penis by what he has experienced as an actor and in his private life.
“But I also have lots of black friends who see it as the one bit of social currency they have,” he says, “so they play up to that perceived social power: ‘I’m the black guy and I could take your white girlfriend because of my big black penis’.
“That is why I feel like we need to extend a bit of grace towards these white fans because they might say, ‘I’ve got a black friend who says they don’t mind being called that and actually, they talk about it’. How do you deal with that? When they are witnessing black people in their lives who are sort of using that currency and their black male sexuality in that way? It’s something that we have to be mindful of.”
An underlying problem connected to these chants is the lack of diversity within crowds at stadiums in England.
According to a YouGov poll in August 2021, 33 per cent of ethnic minority fans said they had personally experienced racist abuse in football grounds, 38 per cent witnessed others being targeted and 79 per cent were concerned they will see players receive abuse.
Until stadiums become more inclusive and safe environments for everybody, these songs will continue to filter through.
“Sometimes people say, ‘It’s not all the fans who are doing it’. But if only 10 per cent chant and the rest don’t do anything (about it), it doesn’t matter,” Ugoala says. “You didn’t turn around and say, ‘Don’t do that’, or, ‘What are you doing? We don’t accept that in our stadium’.
“It’s incumbent on all of us as fans to say we won’t stand for that. That is how these chants are allowed to go on. People join in because it is easier to go with the flow than call it out.
“We need to decide if we want an easy choice or the right choice. Do we want to make our black fans and our black athletes feel comfortable?”
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)
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