Toby Alderweireld fronts Belgian soccer’s campaign against hate speech online after surge in abuse

BRUSSELS (AP) — The chilling messages left an indelible mark on Toby Alderweireld.

One read: “This week, your daughter will disappear.”

Another: “God willing your family will die.”

The former Tottenham player is now the face of Belgian soccer’s campaign against hate speech this week, after authorities reported a surge of racist or discriminating online messages aimed at players.

Alderweireld was targeted online last season after his club Antwerp beat Genk in the Belgian league’s playoffs, when the center back scored his team’s first goal in a come-from-behind victory.

A few weeks later in another game against Genk, Alderweireld hit a long-range strike in the final minutes to give Antwerp the league title. In return, the former Belgium international was hit by a storm of insults online.

“You can tell yourself it’s online, that it was quickly written, so it must not mean anything,” Alderweireld said in a video released Wednesday. “But there are limits. Threatening someone goes much too far and we can’t accept that. Everyone has the right to be angry, to be upset, even to hate someone, but you mustn’t share it with the outside world.”

Alderweireld is not the only Belgian player to receive online abuse. Striker Romelu Lukaku has repeatedly been targeted, and Everton midfielder Amadou Onana said last year he was called a “useless monkey” following his team’s 4-0 defeat to Aston Villa in the Premier League.

Everton and Premier League authorities both condemned the abuse, encouraging fans to report such behavior. In his video message, Alderweireld urges players, referees and fans to be uncompromising. After his family was threatened, Alderweireld took action and a suspect was quickly identified.

“Police are going to take it very seriously,” he said. “Those people are going to be tracked down. Police can come and arrest them. And they no longer have the feeling ‘I’m behind a computer, I can do whatever I want.’ That’s going to make people maybe think twice.”

The Belgian federation (RBFA) said it is now using a test version of an online tool developed by FIFA that can automatically delete hateful comments on its social media channels.

“Since the launch of the tool in August 2023, some 1,200 comments related to hate speech, racism and discrimination have been removed,” the RBFA said, adding that it plans to make the tool available to its international male and female players.

The Belgian soccer federation also launched an action plan in 2021 aimed at combatting all forms of discrimination, not only online. As part of it, Belgian soccer authorities have opened a reporting hub to collect incidents. During the 2022-23 season, 452 people contacted this reporting center, compared to 372 the previous season.


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