I recently watched the year-end episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO. One of the segments (they do four each episode) was about blatant racism in professional soccer or football throughout Europe. The piece featured several black professional football players who relayed the horrors of playing to sold-out stadiums in Spain, Italy and Germany while being taunted with monkey chants and pelted by bananas. Even worse, some fans displayed signs referencing the Holocaust while proudly displaying Nazi paraphernalia. The segment also featured members of right-wing racist cults that use football matches as fertile recruiting grounds for new members (i.e. racists).
As I watched this segment with incomprehension, one less obvious question kept popping up in my head: What is the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the governing body of professional football in Europe, doing about the very public display of racism in the stands and on the fields? The answer, amazingly, is very little. In fact, the CEO of UEFA, who was interviewed by Gumbel for this segment, demonstrated little evidence that the league was aware of the issue and willing to take meaningful action.
One major issue for UEFA is their executive committee is made up of all white men. And, as Thierry Henry (one of Europe’s premiere football players) stressed, unless you’re black, which he is, and on the field when the monkey chants rise up or the bananas come reigning down on the field, it’s impossible to comprehend the pain, fear and frustration felt by those who are the target of such behavior.
Well, I’m a white man but it didn’t take long for me to become enraged that racism was not only so widespread among European football fans, but that the people who were governing it were so apathetic to the situation. If UEFA won’t take a stand, then the European Union should. Open and frequent displays of racism across European’s football stadiums are a scary thought. Letting it happen without consequences is even scarier.
As Churchill once said, "I never worry about action, but only about inaction."
As a football supporter I have had the misfortune to witness this type of racist behaviour amongst other so-called fans. The problem has declined in English football, especially among the top clubs, although, this is as much due to the gentrification of the game as any football association programme such as the ‘Kick Racism out of Football’ campaign.
As far as the inaction over racism at European football matches, well, the problem lies as much with UEFA as it does with each country’s individual football association. Each FA is responsible for the actions within its leagues, UEFA only ever seems to act after excessive racism at inter-European matches, and then only after pressure from the FA of the aggrieved club. This kind of ‘States Rights’ structure has ensured vast differences in the levels of racism in European football – while it has effectively been stamped out in some parts, it continues to flourish in others. Sanctions such as fines and being forced to play matches in empty stadiums can be imposed by UEFA, although this is rare, especially when you consider the severe and persistent nature of the problem.
In the 1980’s football hooliganism (including racism) was rampant at English football grounds, it became so severe that English clubs were banned from playing in European competitions. Now, in otherwise orderly European countries, disorder and behaviour that is not tolerated in the rest of society runs rampant within the football stadiums. It seems as if football stadiums are insulated from the social norms, and more importantly the laws, of the land. It is up to UEFA, the FA’s, the clubs and the police and ultimately the fans to eliminate this stain on football.