Thursday, April 11, 2013

UEFA on racism in football: good intentions, bad in practice?

European football's governing body seems to be taking a hard line on racism in the game. A good idea? Of course... you'd think. But I'm not sure UEFA has their priorities sorted.
From Football365:

Players who are found guilty of racist offences will be banned for a minimum of 10 matches under new UEFA proposals. The Football Association is to be urged to follow this lead and bring in a minimum suspension for any player found guilty of racism. UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino confirmed the European body is to double its sanction from next season and that all national associations are to be asked to follow suit. In the two high-profile cases of racist abuse by players in England, John Terry was banned for four matches and Luis Suarez for eight games and Infantino confirmed that UEFA now believed those sanctions were not tough enough. Speaking at the Soccerex conference in Manchester, Infantino told reporters: "We are saying that it should be 10 matches - it has been five matches and we will double it. "We will also submit to the whole of UEFA's member associations asking that all our members employ the same measures as well at national level. "The fight against racism is something that's very serious and we have to make sure that there is correct action and not just words."  The UEFA chief also said there would be partial closure of stadiums for a first incident of racist abuse by fans and a full closure for a second offence. The UEFA sanctions will affect all matches in European competition from the start of next season. Infantino added: "We have to have sanctions and they must have a deterrent effect and what we are proposing is if a player or official is convicted of racism they should receive a 10-match suspension at least. "If supporters at a club are found guilty of racist abuse the first sanction will be a partial closure of the part of the stadium from which the racist abuse took place. "For a second offence there will be the full closure and a minimum fine of 50,000 euros." 

Now, I think the deterrent measures for crowd racism are a fantastic idea. The biggest racism-related issue in European football is crowd behaviour, particularly in Eastern Europe, and finally UEFA seem to want to tackle this. But this has been such an obvious issue for a long time, and precious little has been done about it, I'm sceptical about how well the new regulations will be implemented. It's easy to do nothing about it; the powers-that-be at clubs are experts at not noticing racist crowd behaviour unless it is directed at their own players, and it's a lot to ask referees to keep an eye on it during the game. And what constitutes a severe enough racist incident to incur punishment for the club itself? Perhaps a sole hooligan throwing bananas at black players does not warrant closing the stadium, but what about a section of the crowd making monkey gestures? The officials will have the difficult task of determining at what point racist behaviour goes beyond the realm of individual punishments and warrants collective punishment. Under these circumstances, there may well be an incentive to underplay the extent of it. Then there is also the task of interpreting what exactly constitutes racism, which brings me to the next point.

The proposed heavy ban against players for racism might sound good in theory. But the two examples of racism from the English Premier League recently show how problematic this can be. Both Luis Suarez and John Terry were shown to have used racially-charged language towards black players, but the contexts of each incident have enough ambiguity to make their guilty verdicts quite controversial, and show that a blanket punishment is not really the right path to take.

Chelsea captain Terry was shown to have called QPR's Anton Ferdinand a "f***ing black c**t", during trash-talk between the two during a game. Seems straightforward? Terry's account of the incident went something like this... (these are not the exact words, I'm just summarising)
Terry: [something unclear]
Ferdinand: "What, did you just call me a f***ing black c**t?"
Terry: "Say what? Are you saying I called you a f***ing black c**t? No I didn't say that."

I actively dislike Terry as a player and a man, but I'm not sure he was really guilty here.

Liverpool's Luis Suarez is another player a lot of people hate (due to propensity for underhanded tactics), but again, I'm not sure he is really deserving of the punishment he received. His racist comment was made during a heated exchange with Manchester United's Patrice Evra, a French player of Senegalese descent. Suarez is Uruguayan. So bear in mind that both players are conversing in English, which is not their native language. Suarez allegedly called Evra "negrito", meaning "little black person" in Spanish, but this term is not regarded to be especially offensive in South America. To throw another element into the mix, Suarez himself has a black grandparent himself. While Evra's and Suarez's stories do differ slightly, it seems very possible that Evra construed "negrito" as the rather more offensive "nigger".

Again, enough ambiguity to make Suarez's 8-game ban problematic, in my opinion. Words cannot be defined as racist simply on their own; their context determines how offensive they actually are. Which is why mandatory set punishments are a bad idea.

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