Racism in European football

By Nikhil Rao


This article is about a list. The litany of racism-related incidents occurring in European association football or soccer (hereafter referred to as football) makes for very long reading. Though many of us assuage our consciences with sweet words of comfort and assure ourselves that racism is long gone from football, the remnants of racism rear their heads like the mythological Lernaean Hydra – and in a grotesque fashion.

The most recent incident took place in Italy. AC Milan, a team from the first division, and Pro Patria, a fourth-tier team, were playing out a friendly game. Throughout what was played of the match,  Kevin Prince-Boateng, a player of Ghanaian descent, was singled out for racist abuse by the audience. Boateng and Milan then proceeded to abandon the match. Throughout Europe, to the best of my knowledge, the governing bodies of domestic leagues state that they are intolerant towards racism. Moreover, the main governing body of European football, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), claims to have zero tolerance for ‘any form of racism and discrimination’. Though that statement is strongly worded, one wonders, is it really so? Hardly.

In the past few years there have been far too many racist incidents in European football and they usually end the same way – with the perpetrators being fined a relatively paltry amount of money and banned for a few matches here and there. True, speech is free in many of these European countries, but clubs are private entities that have their own standards and follow those of the governing bodies of the sport, which too are private bodies. The logic runs something like this: if fans’ behavior goes against the charter of the domestic league and hence the football club, the club and domestic governing body are liable. With that in mind, let us proceed with this lovely list. In 2012, England’s Danny Rose was the subject of racist chants during an under-21 match against Serbia, in Serbia, while the same happened to England’s Nedum Onuoha in 2007. During Euro 2012, the Croatian Football Association (FA) was charged for the racial abuse of Italy’s Mario Balotelli. Before the tournament had begun, members of the Dutch team were subject to racist taunts during a training session in Poland, only for UEFA to categorically deny the racist nature of the incident.

The buck doesn’t stop at international football. There are two more major European tournaments: the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League. FC Porto, a Portuguese outfit, was found guilty of racial abuse directed at Balotelli, a Manchester City player, during a Europa League fixture. Lazio, an Italian team, was punished for the behavior of fans who had directed anti-Semitic and other racist abuse towards Londoners Tottenham Hotspur.

Given the rampant nature of such incidents, one would not be remiss to assume that UEFA, at some point, had decided to firmly crack down on such behavior. Alas, it is not so. While punishments are meted out, they are paltry at best and laughable at worst, especially when compared to fines for other offenses. The incident involving Onuoha in 2007 led to the Serbian FA being fined 16,000 pounds sterling (GBP), Porto were fined the same amount for the abuse of Italian Mario Balotelli, and Lazio is reported to have been hit with a fine between 32,000 and 50,000 GBP. These rebukes of pecuniary nature pale in comparison to other fines. Chelsea FC, a London team, was fined 85,000 GBP because its players argued with referees after a controversial match against Catalan giants Barcelona in 2009. In the same fixture for which Porto was fined, Manchester City was fined around 25,000 GBP due to the fact that its players arrived on the pitch late for the second half. The Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner was fined 80,000 GBP for lowering his shorts to display a sponsor’s name on his underwear after he had scored a goal in the Euro 2012. Arsenal FC, the pride of North London, was fined 10,000 GBP for the conduct of its coaching staff and players for confronting the referees after a match against Barcelona in early 2011. Then, Arsene Wenger, the manager of Arsenal, was banned for three matches and fined 33,000 GBP for confronting the referees in the wake of a 3-0 victory over AC Milan in 2012.

Apart from the differing severity of punishments described above, some of UEFA’s practices are quite odd. Although Croatia and Serbia are repeat offenders, the severity of their punishments are not increasing greatly (although, to be fair, two of the Serbian under-21 team coaches were banned for life for the Rose incident). UEFA’s president, Michel Platini, has time and time again stated his intolerance for players who protest racist behavior during the game. The Frenchman opines that if players walk off in protest, they should be censured and punished. Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, the governing body of world football, unequivocally shares this opinion.

A small caveat here: although governing bodies have not combated racism effectively, the English FA is one association that stands out. When Chelsea’s John Terry was found guilty for racially abusing Queens Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand, he was fined 220,000 GBP and banned for four matches while Liverpool’s Luis Suarez was fined 40,000 GBP and banned for 8 matches for a similar offense.

Having said that, the governing bodies still largely confront the specter of racism in football with strong words but lax action. This is unfortunate for the sport in Europe and is something that needs to be changed. As of now, it looks like challenging a match official susceptible of human error is viewed as a greater transgression than violating UEFA’s rules on racist conduct. That sounds encouraging.

Nikhil Rao is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]