October 15, 2008

Is racism rife in European football, and what is being done to stop it?

Why are we asking this now?

Racism has long been an issue in football, that most tribal of sports; but in recent weeks, the game in Europe has faced a series of incidents that have reminded British supporters of the Continent's problems and may have brought matters to a head.

First, Croatia fans made monkey noises at Emile Heskey during England's World Cup qualifying fixture in Zagreb, and were fined £15,000 by Fifa, the game's global governing body. Next, England asked for their forthcoming friendly against Spain to be rearranged away from Madrid's Bernabeu stadium, where black England players suffered similar abuse in a fixture four years ago. And yesterday Uefa decided that Atl├ętico Madrid would be forced to play their next two home matches at a neutral venue and fined €150,000 (£120,000) after supporters abused black Marseille players a fortnight ago.

Where does racism most affect the game in Europe?

Spain and Italy have long had reputations as being particularly poor at policing racist supporters, and in both leagues black players are abused for the colour of their skin as a matter of course. In Spain, leadership from politicians and senior figures in the game has been seriously lacking. After national team coach Luis Aragones called Thierry Henry a "black piece of shit", condemnation from politicians didn't exactly pour out, and it was no great surprise supporters unfurled a banner which read "Aragones 1 – Henry 0" at the same game against England in 2004 at which Shaun Wright-Phillips and Ashley Cole were constantly barracked.

Italian fans are known for the same kind of behaviour. Some Italian clubs' supporters are also subject to a troubling neo-fascist influence, with Lazio, the club that Mussolini supported, particularly notorious in that regard. Meanwhile, away fixtures against Eastern European teams are often an endurance test for black players.

Why are fans so susceptible to racist influences?

In the aforementioned countries, it's partly to do with wider demography: countries with smaller ethnic minority populations are almost always more hostile towards them. But some believe that football's insular culture is especially prone to such problems.

"The [football] hard-man lives in a dangerous and unchanging world," wrote sociologist Dave Robins in 1994. "Permanently sensitised to 'trouble' in his environment, his paranoid fantasies about defending his 'patch' against outsiders make him ripe for manipulation by the politics of the extreme right."

Do the same problems apply in the UK?

To some extent, racism can still be found in British stadiums. Just a few weeks ago, Tottenham supporters chanted racist, homophobic abuse at their former captain Sol Campbell in a game against his current club, Portsmouth. Compared to much of Europe, though, such incidents are few and far between. "When you go to a football match in the UK, you don't expect to be abused for the colour of your skin," says Piara Powar, director of the anti-racism campaign Kick It Out. "In Spain, Italy, some parts of Eastern Europe, you would expect it."

Why are things better here?

Partly as part of a broader cultural difference. "There's a wide appreciation of multiculturalism here," Powar says, "even if there's been a backlash against it in the last few years." Black players became a fixture in British football much earlier than in Spain or Italy, and so British football went through its own racist phase earlier – in the 70s and 80s supporters thought nothing of throwing bananas at players like Cyrille Regis and John Barnes – but, as a result, they dealt with them earlier, too.

What do we do differently?

Campaigns like Kick It Out started earlier here than they did in many other European countries, and clubs founded their own anti-racist initiatives which have become part of the furniture of the game in this country. This week, for instance, Kick it Out starts a "One game, one community" campaign aimed at encouraging inclusivity in the game at all levels.

Anecdotally, most supporters say that such efforts have coincided with a major reduction in racism in the game. As early as 1994, a survey found that 84 per cent of football fanzine editors felt that racism had diminished significantly in the previous five years; and, while homophobia is still rife, serious racist incidents are now very rarely a feature of the clashes between Premier League teams. Most British players and supporters are much more likely to encounter trouble in international fixtures or club games in European competitions.

What is Fifa doing about it?

Football's authorities have long talked a good game on anti-racism. Before the 2006 World Cup, Fifa president Sepp Blatter declared that "more than the sword of Damocles" was hanging over national associations that failed to take adequate steps to prevent racism. "This," he went on, "is the end of non-compliance with what our society is asking football to do." Since then, though, the organisation's actions have been far from the firm deterrents that such a speech would suggest. The decision to fine Croatia a mere £15,000 in the light of the clear evidence of abuse against Emile Heskey has drawn particular derision.

"Croatia were fined a few thousand quid," Rio Ferdinand said afterwards. "What's that going to do? That is not going to stop people shouting racist or homophobic abuse. Sepp Blatter likes to speak up about things that are good for Fifa's image but I would love to see them stand up and dish out the right punishments for these incidents."

What would the right punishment be?

It's widely agreed that a points deduction would be a far more powerful disincentive for abusive supporters, who might then see their teams lose out in competition. But many say that it has no chance of getting off the ground because of the minefield of potential legal challenges to such a decision. If that fear – and the inertia of member nations where racism is not high on the agenda – stops Fifa taking stronger action, it's hard to see how the organisation's actions can have much impact on racist behaviour.

Is anyone else doing more?

Uefa, which has responsibility for the club game in Europe, has taken a more convincing anti-racism stance. Its decision to hit Atl├ętico Madrid with a much heftier fine and to deny them home advantage for two fixtures is seen as much more likely to hurt supporters and club revenue – and therefore to motivate real change. There is a caveat to this: while the fine was levied because of racism, the home ban also took into account an attack on the opposition bus after the game, and no such punishment has been levied on purely anti-racist grounds. Still, says Piara Powar, "this is a momentous step. It shows Uefa's prepared to show leadership on the issue. And football is a very familial industry. If the daddy shows a lead, the national associations will follow."

Should clubs with racist supporters get points deducted?

  • Supporters don't regret a financial penalty in the way they do if their team suffers in competition If a victim's play is affected, it makes sense to deny the other team any advantage it might have gained
  • A points deduction makes headlines and send a wider message that such behaviour will not be tolerated
  • Docking points is much more likely to produce an expensive, time-consuming legal challenge
  • You could end up encouraging away fans to sneak into the home end and behave in a racist fashion on purpose
  • It's wrong to punish the club, players and law-abiding supporters so severely for the actions of a few

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