Can football really tackle racism?
It was supposed to be a low-key friendly. An opportunity for players to retain their match sharpness during the winter-break in Serie A. However AC Milan's friendly against Italian lower league club Pro Patria recently hit the headlines for all of the wrong reasons following the decision by the Milan players to walk off the pitch midway through the first half in protest against racial abuse suffered by several of their black players, most notably former Spurs midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, at the hands of some sections of the Pro Patria support.
Sadly this is not the first reported case of players being racially abused this season. In October, England's 1-0 win against Serbia in the second-leg of their U21 Euro qualifier was marred by a number of incidents of Serbian supporters racially abusing England's black players. Despite worldwide condemnation and calls for the Serbian national team to be banned from international competitions, the sanctions issued by UEFA to the Serbian FA in early December were a mere £65,900 fine and an order that their U21s play their next match behind closed doors. Unsurprisingly the sanctions were heavily criticised, none more so than by UEFA president Michel Platini, and UEFA has since appealed the decision by its control and disciplinary body.
Other examples of racial abuse in football this year include a Lokomotiv Moscow supporter throwing a banana at Anzhi Makhachkala's Congolese defender Christopher Samba and Porto supporters chanting racial slurs at Man City's Yaya Toure and Mario Balotelli (incredibly Man City were fined around £25,000 for being late back on the pitch for the 2nd half - around £8,000 more than the fine Porto received for their supporters behaviour).
With racism still very much prevalent in world football there are growing calls for football authorities to take tougher action to try to tackle the problem. The difficulty which they face however is that racism is not just a problem in football - it is a problem in society.
Many of the sanctions which have been issued to clubs and national football authorities have been condemned as being too light (for instance, the punishment handed out to Pro Patria for the Kevin-Prince Boateng incident was only to play their next home match behind closed doors) but if they were to be much tougher (say banning clubs from competitions instead of issuing fines or ordering matches to be played behind closed doors), would they really be effective in preventing racism from taking place at future matches?
Whilst there is no question that clubs should be encouraged to be pro-active in banning supporters who have been racially abusive, surely there is a limit to what a football club can do to change the attitudes of their supporters? A club can support and endorse anti-racism campaigns and local initiatives but if a section of their supporters have been brought up in an environment where racism is tolerated and even encouraged, it is difficult to see that how the club will have any real impact in addressing such behaviour.
In my opinion, the football authorities should impose tough sanctions on those clubs who fail to take reasonable measures to prevent racism from occurring at their ground. If clubs continue to fail to act, the football authorities should issue tougher sanctions such as competition bans. There is no point in issuing a sanction if there is no follow up to ensure that the issue leading to the sanction has been resolved.
However, if a club is actively taking reasonable measures to help prevent racism in their community, is it right that they should face sanctions if a racist incident occurs at their ground? Racism will not be eradicated from football grounds until it is eradicated from society. This is of course not something which will happen overnight but we should take encouragement from the fact that progress has been made in many European countries in recent years and none more so than the UK. Gone are the bad old days when racism was the norm during football matches. Nowadays we are appalled to hear of any incidents of a player suffering racial abuse - and this is exactly how it should be. Clubs and national football authorities have played their part through their involvement in several publicity campaigns including "Kick it Out" but in my view it is the development of a more liberal attitude by UK society which has had the biggest impact.