Wednesday, January 9, 2013

UEFA's Woeful Record on Racism

This piece was originally written for

This year will not be like the last. After 25 minutes of vile racist abuse from a section of the Pro Patria crowd, AC Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng picked up the ball and volleyed it at the top tier of the ground towards the so-called fans. In no time at all he began walking off the pitch, refusing to continue playing. To their enormous credit both his Rossoneri teammates and the opposition followed him in solidarity. The referee was left with no option other than to abandon the game.
Off the field, racism dominated the football world throughout 2012 in much the same way as Spain dominated on the pitch. Liverpool’s Luis Suarez was found guilty of racially abusing Man Utd’s Patrice Evra by the Football Association (FA), while a court cleared John Terry of the same charge after TV cameras had caught the Chelsea defender mouthing obscenities at Anton Ferdinand. Given the evidence the FA felt obliged to ban Terry and also stripped him of the England captaincy. As the headlines were being dominated by these two high profile cases, the European Championships took place amid fears that neo-Nazi groups in Poland and Ukraine, the host nations, would target black players and travelling fans. By the end of the year fascist Ultras from Rome’s two clubs, Lazio and Roma, put aside their domestic rivalry to viciously attack Tottenham supporters, yelling anti-Semitic insults as they did so. A House of Commons committee report concluded that racism was still a “significant problem” in football. 
2012 was the year in which we talked about racism in football, and for a moment there was the terrible sinking feeling that with its passing we were left with little more than same shit, different year. Not now. The actions of Kevin-Prince Boateng could, potentially, become a watershed moment in the sport. 2013 could be the year when we start talking about anti-racism in football. 
In fairness the debate started late last year. In October the England Under-21 match in Serbia ended in a brawl following a 90 minutes in which every touch of the ball by a black England player was met with racist chanting from the home fans. After the final whistle Danny Rose blasted the ball into Serbian section of the crowd, and was sent off by the ref. As he left the pitch he “mimicked monkey gestures, signalling that he had been racially abused”. During the game England’s players were pelted with coins and stones.
The ugly scenes drew a swift response from the English FA, who called for disciplinary action to be taken against the Serbian FA. The ex-England midfielder Paul Ince (whose son played in the game) went much further arguing: "If it was me, they [Serbia] would be kicked out for the next five tournaments - European, World Cups - but they will get a little ban and that will be it. Things like that are not what we want to see in football. It takes it back to the dark ages." Everybody agreed that sanctions of one kind or another needed to be enforced and looked to UEFA, European football’s governing body, in the hope that they would take a lead. England U21 boss Stuart Pierce said he “would trust UEFA to make the right and proper decision”.
What did UEFA do? They banned six players, including two from the England team, as well as two Serbian coaches for their part in the brawl. In addition they ordered the Serbian Under-21 team to play their next competitive match behind closed doors, and fined the Serbian FA £65,000. It was a derisory outcome, and an insult to black players and anti-racists everywhere. This should come as no surprise. Indeed it says a great deal about their track record that the fine was the largest it has ever imposed on a national body over the issue of racism. Time and time again UEFA have been found wanting when it comes to confronting racism in the beautiful game.
Since 2002 UEFA have issued a number of fines against national teams for racially abusing black English players. Slovakia, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Serbia and Croatia have all been punished, yet the fine in each case was minimal, the largest being £34,230. UEFA have at every turn rejected the suggestion that these sanctions are not nearly harsh enough. Similarly they have ignored calls to dock points from offending nations who are seeking qualification to major tournaments. This is not to say that there are no problems of racism in the English game. These are just examples readily available and illustrate the poverty of UEFA’s approach to combatting racism – especially when you consider that Denmark’s Niklas Bendtner was fined £80,000 for ‘unauthorised sponsorship’ when he revealed the name of a sponsor during a goal celebration at Euro 2012. It would seem that ambush marketing is a greater crime than racism in the eyes of UEFA.
With such a long and woeful record on tackling racism it is no surprise that Andre Villas-Boas can say, "I keep saying the same - actions are decisive. I am not sure if UEFA once again sets a good example”. How then can we explain UEFA unwillingness or inability to act?
Politicians and the media like nothing more than to suggest that racism is a working class phenomenon. But rest assured, racism can be found in the boardroom just as easily as we may find it on the terraces. A brief look at the number of black coaches and managers in the British game would indicate that racism is a systemic issue. Formally UEFA are, of course, committed to opposing racism, but then again so are FIFA, and just look at their record. The current bigot-in-chief at FIFA is Sepp Blatter, who ‘earns’ a million pounds each year and is, for my money, quite obviously a racist. This is a man who suggested that racism could be sorted out by a handshake at the end of a game, and who this week criticised the Milan players for walking off the pitch. In response AC Milan president Silvio Berlusconi said he thought Blatter was “wrong”. Put simply, any time you find yourself to the right of Berlusconi then you really shouldn’t be trusted to cross the road, let alone run the world’s most popular sport.
Platini is obviously somewhat different. He has yet to produce the kind of outrageous statements that the gaffe-prone Blatter splutters out as a matter of course. When UEFA decided to appeal the judgement passed on the Serbian FA by its own independent disciplinary panel, it was Platini who was seen to lead the charge, deriding the penalty as “paltry”. His call for a more severe punishment is in stark contrast to a history of sports’ administrators who would rather bury their heads in the sand.
Not that the man is without his faults. In the run up to the Euros, Platini was effectively in a state of denial about the levels of racism in Eastern Europe. He would go on to insist that any player who left the field after being racially abused during the tournament would be shown a yellow card. More broadly we should avoid being so careless as to judge UEFA – for good or ill - simply on the pronouncements and character of this one man alone. As a body it does help organise anti-racist initiatives, such as FARE, although how successful these are remain to be proven.
If a charge of racism is unproven then perhaps it is the case that UEFA under-estimate the level of racism in football. Liberals everywhere love to believe that racism is merely a lack of education and understanding. If you overcome this obstacle then we will move inexorably to a more enlightened society. The history of British football would suggest that this may be true. In the 1970s and 1980s black players in this country were subjected to the worst kinds of abuse. Their entrance onto the pitch would be met with monkey noises, their every touch booed and banana skins hurled at them. It was through the work of fan-based groups, Kick It Out (whether or not you believe it to be now compromised by its close relationship to the FA) and Show Racism the Red Card that these attitudes were challenged. Together with broader initiatives such as the Anti-Nazi League the effect was to drive the worst excesses out of the grounds.
However, what such arguments fail to take into account is that the struggle for equality can go backwards as well as forward. Racist ideas can return and their prevalence is more likely to increase as the harsh realities of recession and austerity bear down ever harder. There has been a noticeable increase in the activities of the far right across Europe and inevitably this finds its echo in the world of football. Italy has been plagued by racism, often directed at Mario Balotelli. Black players have been abused in Spain, and the case of Eastern Europe has already been touched upon above. Is it possible that UEFA have become complacent in the fight against racism? Maybe, but the incidents of abuse and are so well documented that it seems unlikely. And, even if it did explain the present situation, it doesn’t explain why their record has been so poor historically.
John Barnes has long argued that racism is first and foremost a societal problem, Barnes is one of the more articulate ex-professional footballers, and his point is well made. Racism exists in football because it exists in society – not the other way around. This is an especially important point to make at those times, such as the 1980s, when governments simultaneously attempt to vilify football fans and excuse themselves for social ills. But unless treated carefully such thinking can lead to a terrible passivity. What good is challenging racism in football if the real problem is wider society?
This logic is apparent in Barnes’ recent statement: "You can't target racism in football as long as it exists in society … We're trying to do it the wrong way round. A lot can be done but all we can do in football is target and tackle the symptom." UEFA deploy a variation of this argument. But football – indeed sport in general - is more than just a mirror reflecting back a picture of society. It is also a site of struggle and contestation. When racism is challenged in the game it can in turn affect society. When people come together to combat discrimination in all its forms the effects are felt far beyond the confines of the stadium.
Taking such a position enables UEFA to pass the buck and excuse their inertia, but also allows them to talk tough when they find themselves under pressure. And it fits perfectly with the position they occupy in the football world and the role they play. In essence UEFA mediate between the interests of various groups, forced to juggle the economic motivations of multinational sponsors and broadcasters, the political power-plays of individual national football associations, the whims of the mass media, and occasionally the legitimate concerns of players and spectators. UEFA are well aware of this and even headlined Platini’s Christmas statement with a line welcoming the “consensus among football’s stakeholders”. Such an ugly and revealing phrase!
The power of each group in relation to the others will vary at different points, and not all will be able to exert the same influence. It is quite clear, for example, that fans have less say than Sky when it comes to the running of football. UEFA may attempt to manage these often conflicting expectations, but inevitably those with the most money have the loudest voice and it is their needs which are prioritised. The primary consideration is to produce a sporting spectacle, a footballing product that can be bought and sold. The health of the sport is now measured in terms of profit and loss - all other considerations are secondary. The custodians of the game have long since abdicated their wider responsibility, which means that although they may well be committed to opposing racism, they are not necessarily committed to fighting it. Fundamentally the business of UEFA is business – not fighting oppression.
Whatever conclusion one draws, however one explains the woeful record of UEFA, one thing is clear: we cannot simply rely on the people in charge of the game to tackle racism. Bigotry will be most effectively challenged by the people on the terraces organising and arguing. It will be beaten down by grassroots and community campaigns. And players can give a lead in stamping out racism with their principled actions and by remaining consistently outspoken. For this very reason we should celebrate Kevin-Prince Boateng. In an outcome worthy of an attacking midfielder, he may just have changed the course of the game.