Should FIFA move the ball on racism?

Football federations have imposed higher fines for violating product placement rules than racism.

In 2013 football player Kevin-Prince Boateng walked off the field in protest against racist chants [Reuters]

As the 2014 FIFA World Cup captivates millions in stadiums and in front of TV screens, this is an opportune time for a global conversation on racism and bigotry in football. This discussion needs to go beyond political posturing and symbolic campaigns like the one launched by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

The beleaguered Sepp Blatter, president of the International Federation of Football Association’s (FIFA) has previously denied that there is a problem with racism in football. Yet it is clear that racism has been a definitive, endemic and prominent scourge in football for the last two decades across the world.

In the same way that Third World coffee keeps the West awake, players coming or having ancestry from South America, Africa and the Middle East currently provide the lifeline to European football. In fact, the starting line-up for the Brazilian national team leads the major European teams:  Neymar and Dani Alves play for Barcelona; Hulk plays for Zenit Saint Petersburg, Thiago Silva and David Luiz play for Paris St Germain; Marcelo plays for Real Madrid and Maicon plays for Roma.

Despite performing fantastically and leading their teams to victory many times, these players and their team mates of colour have faced persistent racist abuse across Europe. 

Racist chants

Racism in football is not simply a matter of overzealous supporters, football hooliganism or antagonistic players. It is a specific bigotry directed against players based on their race, ethnicity or nationality. It thrives because there is no serious enforcement of sanctions against it for the players, match officials or the fans. It is the crudest type of racism, usually involving ugly colonial-era imagery of non-white racial inferiority.

Earlier this year, a Villarreal fan felt compelled to throw a banana at Dani Alves who cheekily ate it in front of a packed stadium. Alves’ defiance of the racist gesture provoked a public discussion on racism in football, but that did not go far. The Villarreal fan got away with a life ban, but no real measures were taken to prevent this from happening again.

Football Rebels – team mates Pasic and the siege of Sarajevo

Media campaigns and symbolic initiatives like the promotion of T-shirts and armbands that urge fans and players to “Say No to Racism” are admirable in their intent, but are not very effective. In October 2013, Manchester City captain Yaya Toure faced racist chants from CSKA Moscow fans while wearing a captain arm band with the words “Say No to Racism”.  

Racism has not spared even players born and raised in Europe. Mario Balotelli, who plays for Italy, has frequently been told by fans that “a black man cannot be Italian”. Some have even criticised him for reacting to racist chants during games.

Regrettably, targeted players who ignored racism directed against them before, have begun to act against discrimination in ways that essentially interrupt matches, inadvertently punishing racist and non-racist fans equally. In 2013 former AC Milan mid-fielder Kevin-Prince Boateng walked off the field because of racial abuse and was duly followed by his teammates in solidarity.

In the wake of Boateng’s protest and the global outcry that it caused, FIFA promised to get tough on racism within the game. FIFA put forward proposals to ban players and officials found guilty of racism for five matches, while teams could be docked points, expelled from competition or even relegated for persistent offenses. UEFA instituted similar rules, including closing stadiums.

Boateng’s reaction was overwhelmingly supported despite the fact that in 2012, UEFA had previously warned players against walking off the field for racism, leaving the decision to halt or continue a match to the discretion of the referee. UEFA’s response effectively constituted a non-reaction that placed the burden of dealing with racism on the players and officials themselves, instead of searching for an institutional solution.

Effective measures?

Football players who have been subject to persistent harassment have demanded a substantive response from UEFA and FIFA. While racism from fellow players and officials is a problem that needs to be addressed, the behaviour of team fans remains the biggest issue. Two responses have been put forward to deal with this: depriving fans of access to games and fining teams for their supporter’s behaviour. However, UEFA and FIFA have been inconsistent about applying these sanctions, which speaks volumes about its commitment, or lack thereof, to tackling racism.

In fact, the two governing bodies seem much more serious about commercial or technical violations than racism. In 2012, former Arsenal and Denmark national team member, Nicklas Bendtner was penalised $125,800 and a one-match ban after contravening a ban on product placement during matches by flashing his logo-emblazoned underwear. The same year UEFA fined Manchester City roughly $42,000 for arriving a minute late to the football pitch.

By contrast, the federation fined Porto $34,000 for its fans’ racist chanting against Mario Balotelli and Yaya Toure. Not only is this fine inconsequential to a team with a net income of $27m per year, but it also demonstrates that for UEFA, tardiness is a more urgent issue than racism.

One can also wonder why there have been so few fans who have been punished with bans or why stadiums have not been closed. It seems that after all, FIFA and UEFA do not really want to come down on teams and fan clubs with decisive measures. In fact, Blatter recently said that the partial or full closure of football stadiums “is extremely dubious”.

As long as FIFA and UEFA care more about the commercial side of football and avoid the urgent attention that racism in football deserves, we will continue to hear monkey chants in the stadiums. A global discussion and tough measures are way overdue and should have been taken long time ago.

Lindiwe Makhunga is a PhD Candidate in the Political Studies department at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.