Collective action on racism must match bravery of outspoken players

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We well remember the comment by then FIFA President, Sepp Blatter back in 2011 that no racism existed in football. Aside from the voluminous statements, campaigns, banners and platitudes over the past 8 years, we must wonder whether the will to properly confront racism in football really exists.

Any football fan in this country, and around the world will have seen the abhorrent scenes on social and other media by now of the Cagliari supporters making vile ‘monkey chants’ towards new Inter Milan striker, Romelu Lukaku recently in the Serie A. This, in 2019. 

Every time we see this type of incident, there’s an outcry. Why is football not doing enough? 

We can all agree that the game has a core responsibility, given that it represents every nation and peoples, to uphold the rights of all within, starting with players and fans and extending to all involved, in any capacity.

Especially, children, of course, where the game can be such a powerful tool to teach fundamental principles of togetherness, humanity, and to create a harmonious future free of the blight of racism. 

That blight still exists, evidently. One might argue it is getting worse, and we’ve seen the horrible consequences on the career of a truly great indigenous Australian athlete, Adam Goodes in our local context.

His story is now being celebrated and hopefully will stand as a powerful trigger for progress but leaves open the question of what sport should do to protect its athletes?  

What obligation exists for a club, Federation, sport to uphold the rights of a player to be free of racial vilification?

At the time, not after the damage is done. And the damage is as considerable, personal and grievous as the need for a more effective response is urgent. 

Certainly, in football, it is rearing its ugly head again, and again. And not just in Italy, where we’ve seen Cagliari fans prove themselves among the very worst and with the tacit authority of the Italian Federation.

If any Federation is not strong enough against racism, they are compliant.

Cagliari are repeat offenders. In 2017, it was Sulley Muntari, then more recently Moise Kean of Juventus, now Lukaku. 

Former Inter Milan player, Paul Ince has talked about his time in Italy and how little has changed and former Chelsea striker, Demba Ba has gone so far as to call on all black players to leave Serie A. 

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In other words, as we’ll see shortly, the players are being asked to carry the load and make career decisions that affect them, rather than being protected by the game. 

Elsewhere, we have seen anti-Semitic chants by Chelsea fans and racial abuse of Manchester City and England player, Raheem Sterling last December to which the club took a strong, model and welcome response with bans for six people present (let us not call them fans), including one life ban.

Sterling later suffered further abuse in Montenegro, for which UEFA has rightly been criticised for the paucity of its response to that incident (one match with no supporters and a 20,000 euro fine) and with respect to the Russian Federation the year before (26,000 euros).

The issue has reached crisis point and the world of football needs to stand up now in solidarity for players who have been subjected to this vile abuse for decades. 

Yes, it is a systemic, sociocultural problem in society everywhere, including Italy, but that doesn’t absolve football of its responsibility to deal with it. Rather, this only highlights how important leadership from the game is for the world.  

What hope does Lukaku, and the next generation of kids anywhere in the world have, if the sport itself does not take true leadership on the issue?

We all know that despite the banners, advocacy of many anti-racism organisations and constant commentary from officials, not enough is being done.

And the issue of racial abuse on social media platforms, which is also a powerful tool to identify abusers in the crowd in a positive way, is becoming extremely serious, to which the players, game and platforms will need a collaborative response. 

The staggering statement by the Cagliari ultras, which basically says it’s ok to racially abuse Lukaku in the stadia because they’re ‘fans’, is the very problem.

Young Napoli fans hold a portrait of Napoli's defender Kalidou Koulibaly reading "Although I am small, I'm a man like Koulibaly" on December 29, 2018


Blindness to racism, social or institutional, perpetuates the problem until someone says stop.

That has to be the game itself. All of us. But how? 

FIFA, UEFA and all officials are now bound by the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination which among other things, condemns all propaganda that promotes or incites racial hatred and discrimination in any form. 

The players must ensure FIFA upholds their obligation to this instrument in full, which means a far stronger importance placed on the issue at the global level. 

At the 63rd FIFA Congress in 2013, as part of the ‘Say No To Racism’ campaign, made a ‘Resolution on the Fight Against Racism and Discrimination’ which stated in part, 3 initiatives: competition organisers were to establish an action plan against racism and discrimination against players, officials and supporters; a specialised official was to be in stadia to identify potential acts of racism or discrimination with (an) aim of facilitating evidence for judicial bodies; and two levels of sanction being a fine, warning or match with no fans, and for reoffenders or ‘serious incidents’, points deductions, expulsion from competition or relegation.

Is the latest Cagliari incident not ‘serious’? Are they not ‘repeat offenders’? Where is the expulsion or relegation for Cagliari? 

FIFA has a 3-step process for its tournaments, and on 13 April this year, Gianni Infantino issued a statement saying that FIFA supported strong stances by the member associations, but what if they’re not strong enough, if the evidence is not being collected, or the domestic judicial body lacks the will to sanction their own clubs and officials?

Statements are no longer adequate from FIFA. They must take the lead, now. 

The players have a right to a workplace, which a football pitch is, free of discrimination and vilification and many of us have been so distressed by what we see in our game, that we say to the players, walk off!

But we should ask, why must the players bear the monstrous affects, often greater abuse from doing so without the protection of the game itself, the officials?

Why must they do the governing body’s job when they don’t control the regulations or the working environment?

A recent interview by Amanda Davies of CNN with the FIFA Secretary-General raises concerns about the leadership of the global body.

Amanda asked Fatma as recently as May 23rd, this year why clubs and Federations are handed paltry fines for allowing repeat incidents of racism when, alternatively, an English Championship club, for example, was handed a 9 point deduction for financial issues. 

She replied that "I think that we have less and less incident.. every single incident now is taking a bigger amplitude, which is normal. And there are idiots in the life, there are people that think, that want a world where everybody is the same and I think this is totally wrong but as far as FIFA is concerned our current policy is zero when it comes to racism."

Actually, the research says that racism is growing across football. In England, for example, there was a reported 22% rise in racial vilification reports last year. ). And here is a report on racism across the European continent of last year.

We have seen this type of rhetoric from FIFA before, a failure to acknowledge the scale of the problem and without strong public statements, backed by the ample available evidence, threats of punishment are empty and the justifications open space for the Federations not to act.

Fatma’s commentary should absolutely translate the seriousness of the issue, and with which FIFA regards any incident.

Fatma, when asked what ‘punishment’ should be applied to clubs and Federations, turned the responsibility onto players: "I think that stepping out of the field, by players, would be a very strong message. I’m not in their shoes, they’re doing it to earn their living and I think one day it will happen."

Amanda: "Should it be up to the players, though?" 

Fatma: "Well it’s not up to the players, the whole sport world that should be fighting racism. On the pitch, off the pitch, through communications, through education, through demonstrations, through sanctions and we have all to pool our efforts together to make it happen. But racism has been as old as any other, as even in society and it’s for everybody to combat it and to fight it, yes." 

Muntari, in 2017, walked off the field and was given a yellow card and a one match ban, later rescinded.

The player and team lost out. Nothing happened to the club.

That’s the problem for the players, the system does not protect them even while it calls for them to carry the heavy load personally.

The players can take action and, at a minimum this must be collective, global so as to protect the careers of those being vilified but the sport needs to follow and there’s not enough will without strong leadership from FIFA. 

The victims can no longer be asked to change a system that fails to support them. They require the ability to be heard about the racism they are facing and to play a role in remedy and sanction and FIFA should hold its Federations to the 2013 resolution.

‘Evidence’ seems to be in short supply in Cagliari’s case and FIFA needed the right to intervene in cases where the governing body, or Confederation fail to act appropriately.

The players now have further power to compel FIFA to take on the issue under its Human Rights Policy in which the rights of players are paramount and must be both promoted, and protected. That protection has now become an absolute priority. 

Racism in football mirrors the rise of right-wing, discriminatory views globally in an environment which grows more concerning by the day, but any person should know that once they enter a stadium to watch a match, anywhere in the world, the world game takes racial vilification with the utmost seriousness, and they will face expulsion or relegation, as will the clubs involved. 

Football needs to bring together the players who have experienced racial vilification, global athlete’s body, World Players United, the players’ representative body FIFPro to develop a more effective, global response in an environment where those at the centre of the game are not being given protection. 

The interview finishes with an interesting question from Amanda: "Have you experienced it in your time at FIFA?" 

Fatma: "Not directly, yes but I’m sure in the eyes of some people I’m not, I was not supposed to be there but I have to do it but the fact that I’m here with my UN background," she says, clearly highly irritated at the thought, "they’d better not play that game with me." 

They’re playing it with the athletes every week. And no one is, as yet it seems, irritated enough on their behalf.