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Racial slur compels women's soccer team to walk off pitch

'As a person of colour, you’re sometimes judged differently. We just cannot turn a blind eye to this anymore,' says Simcoe County Rovers owner and club president Julian de Guzman

Wednesday’s game between two of League1 Ontario’s newest women's soccer clubs should have been something to celebrate, but it was instead marred by a racial slur toward a Simcoe County Rovers FC player from the Peterborough crowd.

The Rovers were the visiting team at Fleming College as they took on Electric City FC in the first meeting between the two organizations, who began league play this season.

It was being dubbed the Trent Severn Cup as a fun way to kick-start the rivalry but, with the score tied 1-1 late in the second half, play was stopped by officials due to a racial slur from the crowd toward a Rovers player.

Rovers’ general manager and head coach Audra Sherman says she was made aware of the incident Wednesday night.

“It kind of came quickly. We had a player that went down on the field and then the referee called all the coaches in," Sherman said on Friday. "In your head, you’re thinking this is an injury thing, but it wasn’t. The referee informed us that one of our players had a racial slur said to her from the crowd.”

At that point, Sherman said “everything seemed to move so quickly but yet so slow.”

“We tried to manage the players right away and our first concern was to get our players away from the spectators where the slur came from and then how to go about it from there,” she added.

Sherman and the Rovers are not revealing what the slur was or to which player it was said, but the coach did say her first thoughts were immediately about the player.

“The most important thing was to check on the player who had this done to her. We wanted to check on her, see if she was OK and, no, she wasn’t OK,” Sherman said. “That hit home for us, seeing how she was trying to play it off and pretending she was OK, but visibly we knew she was not.”

Sherman said that while she commended the officials, Electric City FC and the league for trying to handle the situation as quickly as possible, the team felt it was best to leave the field.

“We did instruct the referee to remove all the supporters from the area where the slur came from before we would even consider continuing playing,” she said. “But as time went on, we just knew there was no playing the game after that and we left the field.”

The Rovers released a statement about the incident saying the women’s team and staff collectively decided to abandon the match.

“We are disgusted, extremely disappointed and have zero tolerance for such behavior,” read the statement. “We stand with our players and staff and we are united against all forms of discriminatory actions. We have escalated the matter and are hopeful that all those involved will be held accountable for their actions in a timely fashion.”

The referee stopped the match in the 81st minute and abandoned the game in the 88th minute, with the game knotted at 1-1.

According to League1 Ontario rules, the board of directors will meet to review the circumstances and will determine if the score at the time will stand as the official final score, or if the abandoned match will be rescheduled and replayed.

League1 Ontario has also issued a statement saying that, in co-operation with the teams involved, an investigation has been opened to identify the people who are responsible. 

“We will be working to support the player affected while seeking to ensure anyone involved will be held accountable for their actions,” read the league statement.

Rovers owner and club president Julian de Guzman says that, unfortunately, he knows all too well about the ugly side of sport.

“I’ve been through this throughout my career, playing around the world and, to be honest, still go through it today," de Guzman said. "As a person of colour, you’re sometimes judged differently. We just cannot turn a blind eye to this anymore.

"As terrible as these moments are, they also allow us to raise the awareness of what myself and other minorities have to go through on a near-daily basis," he added. 

The Rovers women’s next game is Saturday when the third-place squad takes on second-place Vaughan Azzurri at Georgian College's JC Massie Field beginning at 4 p.m. The women and club staff will be wearing special apparel to show their support for their teammate and will take part in an on-field show of solidarity at the first whistle.

De Guzman will be at Saturday's game to be with his players and staff and hopes everyone in attendance shows support for the team.

“As a leader for this group, a coloured leader, I want to lead by example and show we can all evolve from this,” he said. “These are things we can help people learn from and this unfortunately will be an ongoing conversation for the rest of our lives. We just have to educate the masses, particularly the youth and future of the game.”

The men’s squad will play after the women at 7 p.m., when they take on Sigma FC. Tickets for the day are available online or at the field.