The recent examples of racist abuse at the highest levels of domestic and European football have sent shockwaves through the sport. High-profile incidents have cast doubt on the instruments of justice and guardians of the game.
Not only this, but the reappearance of racism on what is now a world stage is beginning to undermine all the progress made towards eliminating such egregious abuse – once endemic – from modern football.
All around us politicians, footballers, supporters, victims and others are calling for action to be taken. The question is, who should be taking this action, and what can actually be done to truly kick racism out of football?
Netherlands legend Ruud Gullit earlier professed, in a statement to football website Goal.com, that racism is “a cancer that is growing bigger”. Like many others, he called upon UEFA, the guardian of European football, to take action.
Gullit said members of the organisation “can’t just sit on their hands anymore”, and urged Michel Platini and others with power and influence in UEFA to not just create an impression of zero tolerance, but enforce one too.
There is something unnerving and infuriating about the intransigence and aloof irresponsibility emanating from UEFA. It seems unwilling to admit that racism exists at any level, and when confronted with obvious and unyielding abuse over an extended period of time, it comes across as limp and spineless in its reaction.
Crisis in Kruševac
When England’s Danny Rose fell victim to a hostile crowd spouting cruel racial insults and perpetuating the reputation for intolerance that Serbia has among international observers, UEFA shocked the world by opening disciplinary proceedings against both the Serbian Football Association and its English equivalent.
This decision was taken “following a number of incidents during and after” the Three Lions‘ 1-0 victory in Kruševac, Serbia. After England’s Connor Wickham took advantage of the Serbian keeper moving up the field in search for an equaliser, a riot broke out.
No sooner had the game ended, and Serbia been beaten 2-0 on aggregate in the qualifier for the 2013 European Under-21 Championships, than an unseemly melee developed. In what Sky Sports would probably call an “ugly scene”, coach Stuart Pearce was attacked and Rose sent off for reacting to chants from the crowd that had been allowed to fill the stadium, unabated, throughout the match.
UEFA’s decision to discipline England and Serbia, despite the motivation for the fight having come largely, in fact almost entirely, from the hosts, is almost incomprehensible. Moreover by condemning both sets of players, the emphasis is immediately shifted from Rose’s treatment at the hands of supporters, to what happened when the whistle blew.
Racism in Russia
After all, a riot is easier to punish than racism. Give both football associations a slap on the wrist, minuscule fine and present a “hard line” stance and the whole thing will basically go away. Unlike racism, which has never been truly stamped out in eastern Europe. As was witnessed in the case of West Bromwich Albion striker Peter Odemwingie.
Despite having been born in the Soviet Union, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Odemwingie was never accepted in the Russian leagues while playing for Lokomotiv Moscow. Regularly subjected to cruel chants and the most crass and unacceptable racial stereotyping, when the 31-year-old departed for the Premier League, fans unfurled a banner, with words either side of a banana that read: “Thanks West Brom”.
For those unable to fathom the meaning of this, to supporters of Lokomotiv Moscow, Odemwingie was an outsider who, finally, had been chased out. For good. Yet this is the country that has been awarded the 2018 World Cup, where black players from the United Kingdom, the rest of Europe, Africa, Asia, the United States and South America, will be representing their countries.
Has Kick It Out been kicked out?
Back on home soil, and it appears top flight players are losing faith with the organisations and legislative framework of English football, as well as becoming exasperated at the reappearance of values that are long discredited.
Kick It Out, the campaign launched in 1993 and established as an organisation four years later, has been criticised what is perceived as its failure to stamp out racism in English football. Figures such as Rio Ferdinand, Djibril Cisse, Steven Pienaar and Jason Roberts all refused to wear the Kick It Out t-shirt intended to be donned before games this week, in the wake of recent events.
Even entire teams, notably Swansea City and Wigan Athletic, decided against wearing the t-shirt. Swans’ keeper Michel Vorm, speaking on the boycott, called for more to be done to combat racism.
So what is the answer? On a European level, there is almost no deterrent to racial abuse that UEFA has so far been willing to enforce. By publicly condemning both England and Serbia, it has in effect granted a reprieve to the Serbian FA, supporters, Under-21 players and coaches.
Rather than launching a damning indictment of archaic attitudes and despicable behaviour, UEFA is now investigating a brawl between two sets of players, which will inevitably result in a small fine for both teams, perhaps even reaching the heights of £50,000, and the wider issue being brushed under the carpet.
Rose, who has been blamed for everything that went on in Kruševac, claimed the following after the game: “Every time I touched the ball, they were doing monkey chanting. After 60 minutes, my mind wasn’t really on the game – I was just so angry.” UEFA has a responsibility to protect those who play under its banner, and sadly, this simply wasn’t done. Nor does it seem likely that a retrospective attempt to assuage his feelings of injustice will be made.
UEFA must act – now
All those associated with the Serbian FA, and the team that was on the pitch last week, denied hearing any racial abuse. They did not simply suggest that they could not hear it, or dodge the question in the style of Arsene Wenger. They refuted the claims and effectively called Rose a liar.
The UEFA Control and Disciplinary Body is due to meet on 22 November to discuss what took place. One can only hope they reach the conclusion that, if what Rose affirms to be true actually is, then Serbia must be punished appropriately. Every time something of this magnitude is ignored, swept under the carpet or dismissed, only resentment and mistrust will follow.
UEFA must act in the interests of those it claims to represent. It has to lift the rock, and even if what is found underneath is so nefarious it causes waves that threaten to drown European football in shame, we will all be better off as a result. And so will the game.
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