Jeffrey Webb knows it should be harder to find examples of racism in football.
While in London to speak at an event marking 20 years of the trailblazing anti-discrimination group Kick It Out, yet another example of racism in football reared its ugly, pointless head.
The morning of our meeting in a London hotel, Mario Balotelli had been abused by a group of Italy fans at the team's training base in Florence. That's Balotelli, the Italian hero, scorer of both goals that took his team into the final of Euro 2012, upsetting locals by being black-skinned.
Balotelli is an outstanding player, world class, and at the end of the day, a human. He should have the level of respect and dignity that every person in the world deserves
A few hours later, UEFA opened disciplinary proceedings against Paris St-Germain for alleged racist behaviour in a Champions League match against Chelsea.
"This underlines the level of ignorance that exists," Webb, chairman of the FIFA anti-discrimination task force. said after being informed of the news from Florence. "People need to be educated. Balotelli is an outstanding player, world class, and at the end of the day, a human. He should have the level of respect and dignity that every person in the world deserves.”
The questions is, what, as head of Fifa's anti-racism taskforce, can, and will, Webb do about it?
When we spoke exactly a year ago, Webb, fresh from his appointment as the anti-discrimination chief, talked tough, and I still believe he meant it. Forcing through measures like points-deduction is not going to be easy but if you believe that’s the right path, it’s a start.
Yet the poisonous stream of racist incidents flow through European football particularly.
"The national associations need to improve. We’ve seen many instance of racism at club level. The only way we can eliminate racism is for each and every member of the football family stand up and be accounted for. Some of the sanctions in Spain and italy have not been sanctions that we believe are necessarily showing zero tolerance."
One man, many responsibilities
Straight-talking and highly respected, Webb can be forgiven for stretching the diplomacy in that last answer. Jet-lagged from the travel that comes with his many responsibilities. But Webb shows his tough streak when asked about the most high-profile of the recent incidents of racism in football: When Dani Alves of Barcelona picked up the banana thrown at him by a Villarreal fan and ate it. Making a mockery of the pathetic perpetrator and gaining him worldwide support, but not everyone's idea of the right response.
"What Alves did, I wouldn't have done that. He wanted to be jovial and that's great but we must also understand for me the significance of what it represented. For me it's not a joke."
The Alves incident gave me food for thought. As someone who has called for the harshest possible penalties for clubs with racist fans – relegation and not stadium closures and fines - I wonder what more Villarreal could do other than identify the 'fan' and ban him for life. It really was his fault and not the club’s.
Issue for Spain
Moreover, this is a problem for Spain. Are Spanish people not ashamed of this? Do the people who gave us world and European champions not wince at this? Does it not cheapen their glories? Witness the red and white shirted Atletico fans making news with their monkey gestures when we should be celebrating their incredible season? Do other Atletico fans not abhor these stains on their reputation?
Is racism in football not actually football's fault?
“Villarreal did what they should’ve done. They were very firm in banning the fan and sending a message to say it is unacceptable," Webb added.
|Barcelona's Dani Alves had a banana thrown at hime by a Villareal fan [GALLO/GETTY]
It's clear to me that Webb understands that while clubs and owners need to take the right action, and should be punished for not doing so, the game is reflecting society. It's not in a bubble. It's also important to note that Webb and others are not only dealing with racism, they are dealing with discrimination in various forms, including sexism and homophobia.
Sexism has been a big talking point in the UK with the case of Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore and sexist comments in private emails on a work account that were leaked by a temporary worker to a national newspaper.
With regard to homophobia, before football congratulates itself of one or two former players 'coming out', we should consider the case of two British Olympic female hockey players being open about their relationship and their marriage.
That's teammates. Married.
Can you imagine two Premier League footballers feeling safe to admit to a same-sex relationship of any description?
Even if Webb had far less on his plate, he still won't be able to solves racist incidents in football overnight. FIFA can influence, can change, but it can't solve world problems.
But he 'gets it'. Fines? Stadium Closures? Don't be absurd. It will take a long time to tackle racism in football and this man has precious little to spare. But don't underestimate his ability to make a difference. He's taking the fight in the right direction. His method may need to be a bit more subtle than Alves - it is to be hoped it is as effective and well supported.
Source: Al Jazeera