Europe's racists on the run as UEFA close down the grounds
UEFA announced on Tuesday that four clubs in eastern Europe would face partial stadium closures as a consequence of their supporters' racist behaviour. Maribor, Debrecen, Steaua Bucharest and Chikhura Sachkere have all been punished under UEFA’s stricter guidelines against racism, which could result in large fines and full stadium closures.
Slovenian side Maribor were quick to accuse UEFA of overreacting, announcing via their website: "We have asked for a full explanation of the punishments and we have appealed, as the offending banner was quickly removed and NK Maribor has no history of racism." The offending banner was a celtic cross in the Jug part of the arena, where Maribor’s Ultras Viole gather. The end will be closed for their next home European game, and any further incidents would see the stadium closed.
Debrecen (of Hungary) and Steaua (Romania) were both found guilty of racist chanting from their supporters, and have had the ultras sections of their stadiums closed. Georgian side Chikhura's punishment relates to a group of ultras who gave Nazi salutes and had SS banners draped from their section of the stadium during the Europa League qualifier against Bursaspor. Now the club are awaiting further sanctions after another offensive banner was displayed in the next round at Azerbaijani side Neftchi Baku, where ultras informed locals over the border that ‘This is Georgia’.
Although no fines have been levied, it’s often overlooked that clubs are left out of pocket from closures of stands due to lost revenue. For example, when Inter ultras forced the abandonment of their Champions League derby with Milan back in 2005 after throwing flares and various other missiles onto the pitch, the club were fined €166k but also hit with a four-game stadium ban, which in ticket sales alone cost the club around €4m.
The world reacted with outrage in May when Villarreal were fined only €12k by the Spanish football federation after a banana was thrown at Barcelona’s Dani Alves. Jeffrey Webb of the FIFA’s Anti-Racism and Discrimination Task Force described the fine as "unfortunate and quite disrespectful", while Michel Platini explained: "Our statutes have been amended for federations to take effective measures to eradicate racism." Sepp Blatter waded in on Twitter, declaring: "Sanctions are available and HAVE to be applied."
Fines always provoke angry, easy comparisons with the inflated wages of top players, but UEFA are now in the second season of stricter sanctions on racism in stadiums. The first step is a partial stadium closure (usually in the area of a stadium where an incident has taken place), with the second a €50k fine and full-stadium closure. CSKA Moscow were hit with this punishment last season after their away game at Viktoria Plzen, when some fans displayed swastika flags and made right-wing salutes. UEFA made it clear that CSKA have a history of such incidents, so Chikhura will be expected to receive a similar punishment when UEFA announces its next disciplinary proceedings in mid-August.
Even so, before last season’s rule changes UEFA was severely criticised for its apparent laid-back attitude towards racism, especially when compared to their enforcement of sanctions on other, seemingly less-important issues (like ineligible players, eh Legia Warsaw?).
In April 2012, Manchester City were fined €30k for being one minute late back onto the pitch after half-time in their Europa League tie against Sporting, while Porto received only a €20k punishment for monkey chants aimed at Yaya Toure and Mario Balotelli a month before. The Bulgarian FA were fined €40k after "discriminatory" chanting against England players during a Euro 2012 qualifier in Sofia, but during the finals themselves, Nicklas Bendtner was fined €100k for celebrating a goal by promoting a betting firm via his underwear.
No money, big problems
The new rules were introduced with extra power for referees to abandon games should announcements over the PA system be ignored. So far this hasn’t happened in a UEFA-sanctioned game, and numerous games have continued despite constant racist chanting – including Lazio’s game at Tottenham in October 2012.
On one notable occasion, Kevin-Prince Boateng took matters into his own hands during a friendly between Pro Patria and Milan in January 2013, by walking off the pitch after constant racial insults aimed at him by some home ultras. The game was abandoned and Pro Patria were hit with a stadium closure for their second racist incident of the season, after receiving a €4k fine earlier in their Serie D campaign.
Should UEFA start seriously implementing these new sanctions, clubs in eastern Europe will certainly be hit hardest. Of the 27 racist incidents addressed by UEFA in the 2013/14 season, 18 came from supporters of eastern European sides.
A partial stadium closure for Real Madrid (for racist chants against Bayern in April) won’t have troubled the bank balance, but Steaua Bucharest having their stadium closed (on 10 occasions last season in the league) will have severely damaged the Romanian club’s finances. As UEFA start dealing out their punishments to regular offenders in the coming seasons, we could start getting used to the sight of European games being played in empty stadiums.