Kamara and Banel Nicolita, courtesy of the Romania Policy Center for Roma and Minorities.
Kamara and Banel Nicolita, courtesy of the Romania Policy Center for Roma and Minorities.

Bănel Nicoliță

Roma and proud

Beginnings

Bănel Nicoliță is a Romanian former football player. Born in the impoverished city of Făurei, Nicoliță is one of the most recognisable Roma footballers from Romania. At age 16 he left his home team to play in the third Romanian league. He made his debut in the premier league in Romania at age 19. A year later, in 2005, he joined Steaua Bucharest, Romania’s most successful team.

Steaua legend in European Competitions

Bănel Nicoliță played for six seasons for Steaua, during one of its most exciting European runs. Nicoliță played 64 matches in European competitions, including three consecutive seasons in the group stage of UEFA Champions League. Despite the infamous own goal he scored at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid, most of Nicoliță’s performances were admirable, earning him a spot in the Romanian national team and in Steaua’s history books. He was an integral part of the Steaua team that reached the semifinals of the UEFA Cup in 2006, and he played for the national team at the EURO 2008.

The ambassador of antiracism goes back to his childhood club

In 2007, Nicoliță was named Romania’s FIFPRO ‘Antiracism Ambassador’, becoming part of a larger international network of players involved in the campaign ‘Racism spoils the game, violence destroys lives’.

Bănel Nicoliță was a constant target of racial abuse for Steaua’s adversaries. Furthermore, Steaua has a significant number of fans who constantly chant anti-Roma racist chants, particularly against their rival team Rapid Bucharest. Bănel Nicoliță rarely if ever complained about the incidents, and preferred to ignore the chants, even when an entire stadium targeted him with racist chants, as was the case in 2005 when he faced his former team Poli Timișoara.

In 2011, when he joined Saint-Etienne, Nicoliță gave an interview for French sports paper L’Equipe, stating ‘I’m Roma and proud! I want to be a positive example for the Roma community and make a good impression for my country abroad’. 

Recently, Bănel Nicoliță talked about his darkest moment in his career: in 2006, after scoring the own goal in the Champions League match at Real Madrid’s Bernabeu which cost Steaua their chance of advancing in the competition, Nicoliță was so upset he came close to taking his own life. The support from the coach, his teammates and his family helped him fight his depression and move forward.

In 2018 Nicoliță went back to his childhood team of CS Făurei, as a player and investor. Later, he decided to invest in a football school for young disadvantaged players like he used to be. Today, his love for the game is still strong: at the age of 39 years old, Nicoliță is the face of an amateur football league in Bucharest and has recently come out of retirement to play for a small team in the forth Romanian league to help them fight for promotion. 

Thinking points

Nicoliță takes pride in his Roma identity, and yet he never wanted the teams whose fans racially abused him be punished. Some have seen his stance as proof of great character while others think that he should have used his platform to ask for stronger action against racism in football. 

What does Nicoliță’s career tell us about racism and inclusion in football? Do all players have a duty to ask for sanctions against those that abuse them or should the pressure be on others to take actions? 

Find out more

Read the rags-to-riches tale of Banel Nicolita on The Guardian.

Different approaches to change: Nicoliță wanted to push back against racism but not by punishing individual action.

Life Story 131

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Kamara and Banel Nicolita, courtesy of the Romania Policy Center for Roma and Minorities.
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