Solution to halting racist behavior not easy


LONDON — UEFA is currently investigating three cases of racism during recent European ties — Hajduk Split vs. Fulham, Valencia vs. Liverpool and PSV Eindhoven vs. Arsenal.

Christopher Davies

Notice the connection? All three visiting clubs who had black players abused are English.

Can it be that only black players representing Premiership clubs are the targets for the mindless morons who delight in this unacceptable practice? Are not French, Belgian or Portuguese teams, with a high percentage of black players, also treated in such a dreadful way?

In many respects England is too often out of line with the rest of Europe, claiming to be 100 percent for progress yet equally unwilling to change.

England is resisting the transfer window — which has been accepted just about everywhere else — while last season it hoped for special dispensation from FIFA for players to report to their World Cup squads a few days later so the Premiership could put back a program of fixtures. Such a request was a mixture of naivete and arrogance.

Yet England surely has it right when it complains and maintains its vigilance about racism. Too many clubs accept it as part of the game, shrugging their shoulders with a “nobody was hurt” attitude. On this occasion, England is correct and the others wrong.

Fulham’s Rufus Brevett and black teammates and Emile Heskey of Liverpool were singled out in Split and Valencia, respectively, while Arsenal’s Thierry Henry had objects, as well as abuse, hurled his way in Eindhoven.

Racism, if not hooliganism, has all but been eliminated at English grounds and the country’s strict anti-racist laws should be welcomed by any fair-thinking person. Even the thickest of bigots has realized the futility in booing black opponents when the likelihood is the best player on their own team is the same color. It has not always been like this, though.

I remember traveling on an England B tour of Iceland, Norway and Switzerland in 1989 when right-wing extremists had their trips paid for by a far-right political party so they could abuse the black players representing England.

It was horrendous. In Iceland, around a dozen tattooed, shaven-headed alleged human beings sang the British national anthem with intimidation rather than pride. They then booed the black English players when they were in possession of the ball, told Icelandic supporters “we” were only playing with “nine men really, because they [the blacks] don’t count” and sang racist chants.

The traveling English media asked the police to remove these animals who were waiting for us after the match, unlikely to want an in-depth discussion about tactics. We needed a police escort from the stadium.

Those days, thankfully, are long gone and there is a healthy respect for those of all color and creed, with any booing or jeering directed toward players because they play for the opposing team, not because of their color.

UEFA will meet on Oct. 10 to discuss the three cases mentioned above. “There is no place for racism in football,” UEFA chief executive Gerhard Aigner has said. “We must all work together to stamp it out.

“We have revised our rule book to make additional penalties available to our disciplinary body.”

That includes the closure of a stadium, though that would lead to the danger of supporters from the opposing or a rival club doing their utmost to get another team in trouble.

The problem UEFA has is proving the racism allegations. It is unreasonable to expect the referee, concentrating on the game, to be aware of such things, but the UEFA delegates in the tribune do not seem to hear monkey noises or other such chants. How beggars believe at times.

UEFA must instruct its observers to be far more aware in this respect and report any wrongdoing.

Few clubs or players have been charged for racism. Lazio’s Sinisa Mihajlovic was punished after the Yugoslav was heard insulting Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira, but if Player A insults Player B there are invariably no witnesses, and when it is one man’s word against another, proof is almost impossible.

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said after the PSV game: “It felt as if we had gone backwards when I saw what was happening to Thierry and Lauren [from Cameroon].

“It was strange it should happen in Holland. You think of Holland as a forward-thinking country and society but they have some people who do not think that way.

“As for what UEFA can do, closing the stadium is not the answer because then innocent people suffer. There were fans in Eindhoven who applauded Thierry off the pitch. I think anyone who loves football would do that to Thierry.

“For me, the answer is with videos because you can identify those misbehaving.”

Henry feels so strongly he said he would mount what is almost a one-man protest. “I will walk off the pitch the next time this happens,” he said.

Though one can appreciate the feelings behind Henry’s stance, it would be a victory for the racists if he or any player left the pitch, thus weakening his own side.

While not wishing to minimize the importance of racism, it would take a lot of police hours to go through the closed-circuit television videos and start searching for the culprits. And in an era where proving guilt, even when someone is bang to rights, is far from straightforward, the legal process could be long and costly with no guarantee of a conviction.

Vigilant stewarding is another solution. Stewards should be told to watch out for spectators chanting racist slogans and the offenders removed and charged as if they were fighting.

But when UEFA meets it should realize the best answer is to ensure its representatives who have to send a report on European games are far more vigilant on racist behavior.

If that is reported to UEFA by its delegates, then it can act — at the moment we know it is going on but with little or no official proof.