Premier League youngsters, who should have been having the time of their lives representing their country, being subjected to vile taunting from a minority of opposition fans, not to mention aggression and incitement from opposition players and coaching staff, led to outrage and calls for all sorts of severe punishments for the Serbian FA.
Despite the severity of the events, UEFA’s initial reprimands consisted of a mere £65,000 fine, and an order for the Serbian Under-21 team to play one match behind closed doors. While the Serbian FA undoubtedly lacks the financial clout of say the English FA, a £65,000 fine in the world of football is pathetic. It’s not even a week’s wage for a lot of top players around the world and is less than Nicklas Bendtner was fined for flashing his branded underwear at Euro 2012.
However, the financial element of the punishment ultimately pales into insignificance, to make a resounding statement UEFA needed to ban Serbia, or at least the Serbian U21 side from their next major tournament.
One would hope a punishment as severe as that would convince the small contingent of racist Serbia fans (and other racist football fans around the world) that behaviour such as that seen on October 16th will no longer be tolerated and will be to their detriment in one way or another.
However, the problem of racism in Serbia isn’t confined to football. While in England if you were caught on film making monkey noises and gestures you would be prosecuted by the national law, in Serbia there are very few laws protecting minorities. Certain factions within the country are years behind the likes of Britain in their social development and clearly some are yet to grasp the concept of tolerance.
So how does UEFA (a football governing body) attempt to enforce laws that contradict national laws? It must be made clear to football fans that once you enter the stadium, you are under UEFA laws. This would of course require the agreement of national federations but is a path that must be explored.
As things stand that minority of Serbian fans guilty of racial abuse see no significantly negative consequences to their actions. One Under-21 match being played behind closed doors and a fine, which they personally will not be paying, is unlikely to deter them in the future. UEFA appear to have now realised this – only it was also UEFA who determined the sanctions, which has created the farce of UEFA appealing one of their own rulings.
Not only has UEFA’s independent ‘Control and Disciplinary’ panel shown itself to be incapable of determining an appropriate punishment, but the body’s structure has also been exposed. Some might argue it displays transparency that UEFA can appeal its own decisions, but others will ask why those in charge of making such decisions are so woefully out of touch.
The issue of racism in the European game was thrust back into the spotlight recently as Kevin-Prince Boateng of AC Milan was racially abused in a friendly match against Italian lower division club Pro Patria. Boateng was repeatedly taunted by a section of fans until he and his teammates took matters into their own hands and left the pitch, effectively abandoning the game themselves.
Milan’s act of defiance has for the most part been congratulated. It should be remembered that there was little at stake for Milan with it being a friendly fixture, and whether Boateng’s colleagues would be so quick to follow him off the field in a Champions League knock-out tie remains to be seen, while UEFA’s reaction to such an event would be equally intriguing.
Boateng has since said he would walk off again, regardless of the occasion. UEFA could perhaps learn something from the zero-tolerance policy he displayed in a Rossoneri shirt. However, Milan’s Dutch legend, Clarence Seedorf suggested leaving the pitch isn’t wise, as it is in fact empowering the racist minority.
There are bound to be contrasting opinions, yet there should be no doubt that these professionals, like any employed person in any job, should not have to suffer racial abuse and must receive adequate protection from those who govern the game.
Taking Draconian measures with Serbia would have sent a message around Europe that racism will not be tolerated. However a balance must be struck between punishment and enlightenment, after all, ignorant fans need to be educated – some do not know any better. It is unlikely UEFA or anyone else will be able to completely transform the views of one generation of fans, but the next generation must learn, which leads us to one of the most disturbing elements of the whole episode.
The lack of sympathy shown to the English players by the Serbian playing and coaching staff was appalling. The majority of their players and coaching staff, unlike some of their supporters, would have travelled around Europe and most likely played or worked alongside black players. Whether intentional or not, their actions undoubtedly incited the crowd and this should be given serious consideration when UEFA get around to considering their appeal.
To this point, this episode has highlighted UEFA’s continual refusal to confront racism with the drastic measures it merits. It is likely the appeal will result in a greater punishment, but whether it is a punishment that satisfies football’s anti-racism campaigners is far less certain.
More specifically UEFA’s Control and Disciplinary panel has shown its inability to deal with an issue as sensitive as racism and perhaps the creation of a new specialist panel for cases concerning prejudice of any sort would exhibit their acknowledgement of its failure on this occasion.
As long as racism is an issue in the world, it will continue to be a problem in football. From now on, UEFA must ensure those guilty of racism within a game that should be breaking down barriers, are treated with a similar lack of tolerance to that they display themselves.