Orla Hubbard discusses the responsibility of UEFA to act on its policies.
Throughout the recent Euro 2012 tournament, headlines around the world were beset by allegations of racism, and UEFA are still dealing with the fallout from racist incidents and their own alleged mismanagement of the tournament. In the months preceding the competition, concerns were raised about the choice of Poland and Ukraine as the joint venues for the event, due to the presence of high profile homophobic and xenophobic groups in both countries.
These concerns were made more prominent by a BBC Panorama Documentary which aired in May and showed Nazi salutes and monkey chants being aimed at black footballers during matches in both countries. Former England footballer Sol Campbell loaned his celebrity to the documentary and urged fans not to travel to the matches for their own safety.
The documentary drew forth strong criticism from both the Polish and Ukrainian governments. However, the claims made in the international media about a thriving racist subculture in Poland and Ukraine are not baseless. Last June a draft law went before the Ukrainian Parliament which criminalises ‘homosexual propaganda’ and the discussion of gay rights issues. The Bill sparked a resolution from the European Parliament urging MPs to reject it, but it remains before the Ukrainian Parliament.
This homophobic law is proposed against the backdrop of the cancellation of Kiev’s first ever gay pride parade this year, because the police could not guarantee the safety of participants after the leader of Ukraine’s Gay Forum was attacked by a group of homophobic youths. It must be asked how UEFA felt they could guarantee the safety of thousands of players and fans across the country, when Ukraine cannot even guarantee the safety of its own people during a parade.
A Polish foreign ministry spokesman admitted that Poland has a problem with racism and anti-Semitism, but that it has been blown out of proportion. There is a devastating irony that countries like Poland and the Ukraine who witnessed millions of their own people being slaughtered by the Nazis are now the very countries coming under fire for racist and xenophobic public order issues. Their background of racial intolerance should have made UEFA question the wisdom of holding such a high profile and multi-cultural event in these countries.
However, in many ways the spotlight that has been pointed at the intolerance problems within the Euro 2012 host countries distracts from a problem that is more mainstream in Europe, and in football, than UEFA is willing to accept. During the tournament itself there were numerous complaints of racial abuse and taunting from the fans of several different countries. Following allegations of racial abuse, UEFA started proceedings against Germany, Croatia, Spain and Russia.
German fans displayed a Neo-Nazi banner during their match against Denmark, but UEFA dropped this investigation. The Croatian football association were fined €80,000 after 300-500 ‘deviant fans’ began monkey-chanting and allegedly threw a banana onto the pitch at the black Italian striker Mario Balotelli. Spain was also fined €20,000 by UEFA when their fans aimed monkey chants at Balotelli in an earlier match. The Russian football association were fined €30,000 when their fans made monkey noises at the black Czech Republic player Theodor Gebre Selassie during a match.
The sanctions imposed by UEFA were put into stark perspective when a Danish striker was fined €110,000 and banned from an upcoming World Cup qualifier for having sponsored underwear on show during a match. The discrepancies in the size of the fines imposed by UEFA sends a clear message that they view wearing sponsorship underpants as a more serious offence than the racist taunting of black players.
Football has historically been intertwined with racism and it appears to be increasingly accepted as a part of football culture. The recent John Terry court case and the twitter feud between Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole shows that this insidious subculture extends far beyond the confines of Euro 2012, and beyond Poland and Ukraine.
UEFA stated that it has a “zero tolerance” policy towards racism, and that referees have the power to stop the match should racist incidents occur. It seems evident that neither of these policies were applied during the championship because, although several countries were investigated for racial abuse after the fact, no stewards or security were willing to intercept the individual culprits at the time.
UEFA’s decision to allow Poland and Ukraine to host the tournament could be construed as implicit compliance with a culture of racism and homophobia, or a hope that the countries’ own racial problems might take the blame for any racist incidents at the tournament. Similarly, the meagre fines shy away from acknowledging and addressing a broader cultural problem.
However, it is not solely up to UEFA to deal with the issue of racism in football, nor should it be. It is the responsibility of national governments, and sporting bodies, to ensure that they have a strong, inclusive and respected legal system, and that the rule of law is enforced without exception.
And yet, if internationally respected organisations like UEFA fail to speak out against violence, intimidation and entrenched racism, then there is no pressure on the governments of the nations concerned to enact and enforce laws prohibiting such behaviour. UEFA needs to step up and accept that they must lead by example and combat racism both at club level and at national level. Otherwise they are sending a powerful message to players and fans, as well as to governments, that they are satisfied to allow racism and sport to remain intertwined in Europe.