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Battle against racism truly alarming

UEFA ANTI RACISM CAMPAIGN PENDANT
UEFA's campaign to eradicate racism from the sport is still not enough.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The scourge is now a plague. Soccer exists as many things -- pastime, business, geo-political battleground. But it’s always been a mirror of society at large as well. And so, as racism still persists in civilian life in lands close and far, it, too, rears its monstrous, bigoted head in the world’s game.

Soccer can help that fight or it can hurt it. At its best, it can help change the world. Recall that AC Milan’s Ruud Gullit was one of the first people to use his bully pulpit, the 1987 European Player of the Year award, to make the world aware of an aging lawyer imprisoned on Robben Island. That man, of course, was Nelson Mandela. Soccer has afforded Palestine and Kosovo international recognition, reinforcing their self-determination, by sanctioning their national teams. Soccer has stopped wars and salved hatred. Soccer has done good.

Soccer has also, plainly, not done enough. From the moment black and mixed-race players started becoming a fixture of the professional game in the 1960s and 1970s, they have suffered racial abuse. Often from opponents, sometimes from their own managers, but mostly from opposing fans. Time has eroded some of it, but racism continues to exist plainly and unabashedly in the margins of soccer.

In a few places, most notably Italy and large swaths of Eastern Europe, racial slurs, chants and monkey noises regularly come cascading down the terraces and onto the field. American internationals Cobi Jones, Jozy Altidore, Oguchi Onyewu, Edson Buddle, Corey Gibbs, Tony Sanneh and DaMarcus Beasley have all spoken about the racial abuse they’ve encountered in Europe. There were several incidents at the 2012 European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. Last year, Zenit St. Petersburg fans demanded that its club no longer field any non-white players. Just last week, Manchester City midfielder Yaya Touré was racially abused by CSKA Moscow’s fans. Sadly, this is a very incomplete list.

The response to racism from soccer’s governors has been erratic. In England, the Kick It Out anti-racism campaign has been widely supported. Fans have been prosecuted and some have been banned from grounds, but many black players have said that they feel attitudes are so ingrained that they despair of a solution. The England national team has been roiled in recent years by one high-profile racism incident -- John Terry’s clash with Anton Ferdinand -- and just two weeks ago manager Roy Hodgson was embarrassed when a joke he told about Andros Townsend was criticized for having a racial undercurrent. Some players -- notably Rio Ferdinand -- were themselves criticized for failing to support a Kick It Out initiative last month.

England’s punishments for racist behavior also seem to vary widely. Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and Chelsea’s Terry got very public and lengthy bans for racially abusing opponents -- Manchester United’s Patrice Evra and QPR’s Anton Ferdinand, respectively -- back in 2011. They sat for eight and four games, respectively -- but the seemingly arbitrary discrepancy between their sentences never was adequately explained.

England, to its credit, at least discusses such matters and has shown a willingness to confront the subject. The continent’s record is far more mixed. Europe’s governing body UEFA has been rightly pilloried for treating racist incidents more leniently than, say, commercial infringement. The most notorious case came in 2012 when Nicklas Bendter’s guerrilla marketing gestures at the European Championship netted him a far higher fine -- $130,000 – than was given out to Porto after their fans racially abused Mario Balotelli. Often, UEFA hands out fines and orders stands to be closed -- CSKA will have to play its next Champions League home game against Bayern Munich with a few sections of the stands empty -- but they have been reluctant to ban teams or eject them from tournaments.

And as for FIFA? They announced last month that it would create world-wide racism standings, wherein exemplary countries place high and the offending ones low. This is not a joke.

This wide-scale passivity on this issue can easily be construed as an implicit endorsement, or at least tolerance -- a dangerous message to send either way. The problem is that banning certain fans or playing games behind closed doors, or closing off sections, has proved a flaccid response. Upon their return, banned fans go back to doing what got them banned in their first place (witness this week’s nasty display in Russia). Directing invective at players during a game is an act of defiance by its vary nature, and doing it under threat of a ban only serves to make it more defiant, and perhaps more appealing -- a toddler told not to push a button is that much more likely to push it.

So why not try another avenue? The thing fans most care about, or purport to anyway, is the fortune of their team. It’s harsh to penalize a team for the behavior of its fans, but nevertheless unavoidable that an organization face the consequences of the actions of its constituents.

Rather than create a racism table, it would probably prove far more effective to dock teams real points in the real standings when their fans are found guilty of racial abuse at their games. Widespread corruption in the Italian game, wherein some teams manipulated the appointment of “friendly referees” to their game, seems to have been largely eradicated by draconian measures, like stripping Juventus of a national title and relegating it to the second tier.

Racism is just as much of a perversion of the game as bribery. And this blight, which sets such a regrettable benchmark for the rest of society, must be dealt with just as ruthlessly.


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