TORONTO — Jason Bent and Dwayne De Rosario were fresh off representing Canada at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Malaysia when they went to Germany to play for FSV Zwickau in 1997.
It proved to be an eye-opening, sometimes ugly experience.
De Rosario, whose parents are from Guyana, recalls the newspaper story announcing their arrival. The article referred to them as two “Jamaican dreadlocked” players.
“Very stereotypical,” said De Rosario.
Located 95 kilometers southwest of Dresden, Zwickau was part of East Germany. Bent and De Rosario arrived just eight years after the Berlin Wall came down.
“There weren’t many Black people if any at all,” said Bent.
Bent will never forget an away game at Leipzig. He was 19 at the time, and he was without De Rosario, his roommate, who did not make the trip.
“I came off the bench, and when I was about to be subbed into the game, I started hearing monkey noises,” he said. “And it wasn’t like it was a faint few. It was a pretty large stadium. It might have been 30,000 people. It felt like that.”
He didn’t quite know what was going on. But he knew it was directed at him because the sound started every time he touched the ball and stopped when he passed it away.
White faces surrounded bent on the field and the sidelines. Looking up in the stands, that’s all he saw as well.
It was only after the game that a German neighbor, a white man who had come to watch the game, told him what it meant — that some Germans, whom he called idiots, believed that “Black people were brought up through monkeys. And any time there’s a Black player that plays in this area of the world, that’s what they do.”
“I said ‘Are you serious?'” said Bent. “I was just blown away by it.”
Angry, hurt, and sad, he put on his headphones and got on the team bus. None of his teammates or coaching staff mentioned the chants.
“I was alone, and I felt alone,” he said.
De Rosario recalls one game when he walked off the field at halftime and saw a kid looking at him “with an evil face,” giving him the finger while yelling the N-word at him while his father looked on.
“That’s when I realized how deep-rooted it was,” he said.
If there were Black players on the other team, De Rosario said they would talk after the match to support each other.
Bent says while he has experienced racism elsewhere around the world — he went on to play for the Colorado Rapids in MLS, and Plymouth Argyle in England — the episode in Germany was the most overt.
“All it had to do with was I was Black,” he said.
“I say to myself Mario Balotelli and myself have two things in common,” he added, referencing the Italian international who has been racially abused by Serie A crowds. “We love football, and we’re Black. He’s a far better footballer than I ever was, but when you see stories of him experiencing (racism) in Italy or other countries, I know firsthand it is a serious thing.”
Bent and De Rosario lasted a year and a half with Zwickau, finding themselves on the outside looking in after a change in coach. They also had contract issues with the club.
De Rosario, now 42, went on to become one of Canada’s greatest players and one of the most successful in Major League Soccer, where he won four titles. He won 81 caps for Canada and remained the country’s all-time leading scorer with 22 goals.
Bent, who won 32 caps for Canada, was a hard-tackling pro whose career was cut short by injuries. While a knee injury was the final straw, he endured everything from hamstring problems to horrific blisters.
Bent’s feet were so bad he could only wear flip-flops during parts of Canada’s pre-tournament camp before the 2002 Gold Cup. After a game against the Costa Rica game, it looked like he tried to turn off a meat slicer with his foot.
Today the 43-year-old Bent is a respected assistant coach with Toronto FC and has been back to Germany several times.
“I’ve had a great time and met some great people,” he said. “I’m sure the times have changed a little, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s been completely eradicated. I’m sure it’s still there as an undertone.
“But at that time, in 1997, yeah, it was serious.”
Bent and De Rosario both say the experience toughened them. “(It) turned us literally from boys to men,” said Bent.
“It gave me a clear understanding of my place and who I was. But at the same time it also woke me up that (racism) exists, it’s very live, it’s mighty in certain communities,” added De Rosario. He said race wasn’t much of a factor growing up in the Toronto neighborhood of Scarborough because it was such a multicultural community.
De Rosario, who has also experienced hearing monkey chants, said the acts of overt racism also spurred him on to score — “to shut them up, to prove a point. It only fuelled my hunger.”
Back home in Brampton, Ont., Bent recalls being pulled over by police for a supposed illegal turn. Bent, who says he did nothing wrong, had dreads and was wearing a tam hat, the kind Bob Marley made famous.
“He asked me how much marijuana I had in the car,” Bent recalled.
“He ended up letting me go. No charge, no nothing. I wasn’t guilty of anything. But he saw a young black man driving a nice car, and I had dreadlocks, and he decided to pull me over.”
Bent believes the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police and ensuing examination of systemic racism are going to result in change — as long as people keep the conversation going.
He is hopeful that today’s youth will not let the matter drop.
“You do see conversations that are happening. I know our club has been forward-thinking and very proactive with it. I would give credit to (GM) Ali Curtis trying to make those pushes and have the conversations,” said Bent. “Sometimes they’re uncomfortable conversations, but without being in a place of feeling uncomfortable, there’s not going to be any growth.
“And that applies to anywhere in life … You usually see the greatest gains when you put yourself in uncomfortable situations. This can be an uncomfortable situation, not just for white people to hear but also for Blacks to express.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 17, 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press