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Wake up, UEFA; wake up, football – it's time to finally start hitting the racists where it hurts

Raheem Sterling Montenegro

Once again, England players have been subjected to vile abuse in Montenegro on Monday night. But what to do about a problem that continues to plague society? 

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“It’s disgusting that UEFA puts so much effort in negotiating its multi-million deals and is doing little to target racism specifically. Taunting of black players will continue to rise unless something is done.”

Not Monday night, but 17 years ago from MEP Claude Moraes. The same conversation; the same widespread derision. The familiar weak conclusion: condemn, fine, get on with it.

The year is 2002 and PSV Eindhoven have faced up to a £13,000 wrist-slap for their fans' racist abuse of Arsenal forward Thierry Henry. The club appealed. The fine was increased. Everybody moved on.

Earlier that month, UEFA had released its 10-point plan for tackling racism, referring to unspecified "disciplinary action against spectators and players who engage in racist abuse; preventing the sale of racist literature inside and outside stadiums" and more.

But there lies the issue. What is punishment? A fine is a grievance, not a deterrent. It doesn't punish the racists themselves but faceless clubs that spend less on one player's weekly salary.

Football is, as ever, an extension of society, but it faces a major issue that – for once – money can't solve.

Google ‘UEFA racism’ and you’re hit with a list of well-intentioned guff about from European football’s governing body. All well and good, but their relative inaction is anything but.

Only this season, Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly was subjected to racist abuse from Inter Milan fans. After the match, manager Carlo Ancelotti revealed that his team had requested the match be suspended three times to no avail. The abuse continued, Koulibaly was later sent off and faced a two-match ban. Inter’s punishment was two matches behind closed doors, plus a third with the curva sud shut.

Not that it’s a problem restricted to the continent: in England this season, Mo Salah was subjected to abuse at West Ham, Millwall were charged in February for racist changing against Everton, Huddersfield’s Phil Billing was insulted by a fan of his own club and Tottenham’s Son Heung-min was targeted by one supporter against Manchester United.

As usual, these are isolated incidents and beg the question of whether the many should be punished by the few. The alternative seems fairly straightforward – bringing individuals to justice with aggressive bans, surely the most obvious way to tackle the problem – but clubs and associations must also be hit where it hurts if they’re to work harder and change attitudes themselves.  

Not that there's an easy solution to a complex issue when you’re dealing with centuries of appalling attitudes ingrained in culture. Football alone cannot tackle it – but it must try harder.

Not for the first time, it was England manager Gareth Southgate who responded to his players’ abuse with the most honest assessment of all.

“I'm reflecting on should I have done more?” he said. “In the end, I think I tried to protect my players as much as I possibly can. I'm not the authority on the subject. I'm a middle-aged white guy speaking about racism.

“I'm just finding it a really difficult subject to broach because I want my players to enjoy playing football and not be scarred by the experiences. If people feel I should have done more, then I can only apologise for that.”

His players, he said, didn’t necessarily want to leave the pitch to make a point. “There would be a mix of views, in terms of when we've discussed the topic in the past, how the players would like it to be dealt with,” he said. “And they just want to play football.”

Not an unreasonable request for civility.

It shouldn’t need to, but football can make a difference – and indeed must. Throw the book, lay down the law at all involved and take a stand. It’s the only way to really say no.

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April 2019

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