John Smallwood: Bigotry in soccer, sadly, only reflects the world around it

Kevin-Prince Boateng, of Ghana, who plays for AC Milan, was the target of racist chants.ASSOCIATED PRESS
Kevin-Prince Boateng, of Ghana, who plays for AC Milan, was the target of racist chants.ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: January 13, 2013

It is the most popular sport in the world, so it only makes sense that soccer would be infected with the universal virus that exists and thrives everywhere.

Intolerance based on race, religion, sexual orientation, secular origin and other factors was the world's game long before humans decided to kick a ball into a net.

So I'm not sure what more FIFA, the governing body of soccer, can do to eliminate the acts of hate that routinely occur in matches throughout the world.

FIFA already has taken a strict stance against discrimination - not with merely colorful slogans saying "End Racism."

In 2006, Article 55 of FIFA's disciplinary code was amended to set penalties when fans commit acts of discrimination against opposing teams or players.

The way things are stated, clubs whose fans are identified as committing racist, homophobic or "contemptuous" acts of behavior would be docked three points in the standings for a first offense and six points for a second. A third offense would mean automatic relegation to a lower league.

In domestic and international cup competitions such as the FA Cup, Champions' League and World Cup, an accumulation of offenses could lead to expulsion from the competition.

Those are serious sanctions, the kind that you would think would discourage those kinds of activities.

It puts the onus on clubs to police their own fans. But if governments can't legislate away discrimination why does FIFA think it can?

Several highly publicized incidents of discrimination recently have again blighted the game.

On Tuesday, FIFA fined Bulgaria and Hungary about $40,000 each and said that each nation will play a 2014 World Cup qualifier at home in an empty stadium, because of actions by fans.

The sanctions against Bulgaria were the result of fans making monkey chants at Denmark defender Patrick Mtiligia, who is black, during a qualifier match in Sofia on Oct. 12.

Bulgaria will play Malta at an empty stadium on March 22.

Hungary's penalties are the result of their fans directing anti-Semitic slogans at the team from Israel during a "friendly" match in Budapest on Aug. 15.

Hungary will play Romania in front of no one on March 22.

"FIFA strongly condemns all forms of racism in football and any form of discrimination will not be tolerated and will receive a strong response by the relevant FIFA authorities," the governing body said in a statement.

FIFA, however, did not go to the more serious step of taking away World Cup qualifying points. That could have damaged each nation's chances of advancing to Brazil in 2014.

Last week, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said that "sanctions must be a deduction of points or something similar," to effectively uphold its "zero-tolerance" stance on racism and discrimination.

Blatter's statement was in response to a recent incident in which AC Milan defender Kevin-Prince Boateng and several of his black teammates walked off the pitch and refused to continue in an exhibition match between the Serie A power and Italian fourth-division club Pro Patria.

Boateng, Urby Emanuelson, Sulley Muntari and M'Baye Niang had been repeatedly targeted with racial slurs from a small group of Pro Patria fans.

Pro Patria was fined.

Blatter's call for point-docking as opposed to fines was as much about the precedent the AC Milan players may have set for personally dealing with racism on the field.

Blatter said he understood why it happened, but added that players leaving the field "cannot be the solution in the long term."

FIFA's greatest fear is a big international or club competition match screeching to a halt because of a racial incident.

The issue is complicated.

Even by AC Milan's account, the trouble was caused by only about a dozen Pro Patria fans. The rest of the crowd disassociated itself from them.

The public-address announcer, and even the Pro Patria players, pleaded with the knuckleheads to stop.

"When we tried to reason with them and went to the stands, [the fans] didn't even consider it," Pro Patria defender Devis Nossa said. "They certainly weren't our usual fans."

If Pro Patria tried to address the incident at the time it happened, was it deserving of a penalty?

It's easier when cases involve individual players.

I applaud England's Premier League for suspending John Terry, of Chelsea, and Luiz Suarez, of Liverpool, after they were found to have made racist remarks at opponents.

Major League Soccer suspended Houston Dynamo midfielder Colin Clark for three matches and fined him for hurling a gay slur at a ball boy for the Seattle Sounders in March.

I had considerable concerns when Terry was actually put on trial in an English court. He was found not guilty of racial abuse.

That's better than Udinese defender Danilo, who on Wednesday was found guilty in Brazil of racist abuse and sentenced to a year in prison by a Sao Paolo Criminal Court.

In 2010, Danilo, who is lighter-skinned Brazilian, was an accused by Maneol, a darker-skinned Brazilian, of racial abuse during a match.

Maneol filed a police report after the match and Danilo later admitted he had called Maneol a "macaco" (monkey in Portuguese) and spat on him.

It is expected that the sentence will be reduced to a fine after an appeal.

In October, monkey chants directed at black players for England by fans from Serbia led to a brawl between players and coaches from both teams during a European under-21 match.

FIFA knows its reactions to discrimination have come under more scrutiny since it awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and 2022 to Qatar.

Blatter took considerable heat when he responded to the fact that homosexuality is illegal in Qatar by saying, "I would say [homosexuals attending the 2022 World Cup] should refrain from any sexual activities." He later backed away from that statement, saying FIFA wanted no discrimination.

The perception that Russia is one of the hotbeds for discrimination in soccer got an unwanted boost in December when a movement associated with fans of domestic champion Zenit St. Petersburg published a decree on its website asking that the club to no longer sign non-white or gay players.

Until last summer, when it signed Brazilian striker Hulk and Alex Witsel from Belgium, Zenit was the only top-league team in Russia to have never signed a player of African heritage.

What, if anything, should FIFA do?

Zenit had been accused by a former manager of not allowing him to sign black players.

If Zenit is to be applauded for finally integrating, should it then be penalized for the behavior of fans who say they feel as if black players are forced on them?

"We are not racist, and for us the lack of black players at Zenit is just an important tradition underlying the identity of the club," the fan website said.

When asked about the movement, the ownership of Zenith told the Interfax News Agency, "The fight with various forms of intolerance is the only principle for the development of our club, football and sport in the whole world."

Given the hundreds of soccer matches that are played on any given day across the world, I'm sure statistics would show dramatic declines in acts of discrimination.

But if the world as a whole still has difficult times dealing with discrimination, why would we expect the world's game not to?


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

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