Examining UEFA’s appeal decision in the Serbia-England Under-21 play-off and other recent examples of racism in football

Last October I wrote a post concerning the racist chanting that occured in the Serbia-England Under-21 play-off in Krusevac and questioned whether or not UEFA really had any teeth to bare against racism in football. Since then a lot has happened in the footballing world, not least of all, further allegations of racist behaviour in the game.

On Wednesday 26th December 2012 UEFA decided to appeal all the sanctions imposed by the Control and Disciplinary Body relating to incidents at the Serbia-England Under-21 play-off. Serbia’s Under-21 side had been ordered to play one match behind closed doors and the Serbian national football federation were fined €80,000 in relation to the racist behaviour of their fans during the match in Krusevac on 16th October 2012. There were also bans to England players Steven Caulker and Tom Ince which UEFA wanted to be increased.

Labour MP John Mann who led a taskforce on racism in football for the Football Association said in November 2012 that “very little progress” has been made in tackling the problem at grassroots level. It was revealed there were 144 incidents of misconduct in which racism was an aggravating factor during the 2011-2012 season. Mann spent 18 months chairing a task force for the FA on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in football and found evidence of “sustained abuse” of players from ethnic minority groups. Mann also noticed a reluctance to report incidents of racism:

“I was astonished how players getting abused every single week were not complaining and felt there was no purpose in complaining. In any other part of British society that kind of abuse would not be accepted.”

In January 2013 AC Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng became the first player to cause a game to be abandoned because of racist abuse aimed at him during a friendly match. Boateng’s team-mates followed him off the pitch in protest at his treatment by opposition fans during the match against Italian fourth division side Pro Patria.

UEFA who had been heavily criticised for its failure to take a tougher stance on racism following the Serbia-England Under-21 play-off decided to stay out of the new racism storm as it was not in UEFA’s competition and it was therefore not part of its jurisdiction. The governing body had previously threatened to book any player who walked off the pitch in response to racist chanting during the European Championship last summer.

If UEFA’s response to the racist abuse directed at Boateng was less than encouraging then FIFA’s response was arguably enough to bring the game into disrepute. FIFA’s president Sepp Blatter gave an interview with CNN in which he stated that he did not believe Boateng’s decision to walk off the pitch was the right response to racist abuse and warned clubs that they risked forfeiting matches if there was a repeat.

“Walk off? No. I don’t think that is the solution. But the Italian federation has yet to provide FIFA with a report detailing what exactly has happened. I don’t think you can run away, because then the team should have to forfeit the match. This issue is a very touchy subject, but I repeat there is zero tolerance of racism in the stadium, we have to go against that. The only solution is to be very harsh with the sanctions [against racism] – and the sanctions must be a deduction of points or something similar. We have to have no tolerance to racism, absolutely no tolerance. This action is an example that the spectators must behave well because, as I understand it, the player ran away and the others went with him. [The spectators] cannot go on abusing afterwards.”

Michel Platini, however, disagreed with Blatter’s approach to the matter stating publicly that he had been delighted by Boateng’s gesture of walking off: “It is wonderful, I appreciated it enormously. It was excellent, in fact I later called Milan to congratulate them.”

Platini, though, did reiterate that UEFA already had regulations in place should racial abuse take place during matches. “We implemented rules for Champions League and Europa League matches for the referees to follow. If they hear racist chants, there is an appeal for them to desist over the public address system and the match is stopped for a minute. After that if the chanting resumes there is a stoppage of two minutes and a new appeal for them to stop. A third time and the referee can call the match off. It is the referee who is the boss in the stadium.”

Friday 14th February, universally known as Valentine’s Day and a day of love, was also the day when Liverpool became the first team to play Zenit St Petersburg after some of the Russian club’s fans declared publicly that they did not want any black players on their team. UEFA made it clear that regardless of the fears that Liverpool’s players may be subjected to abuse from a minority of Zenit fans it was only the referee who could abandon the match and that any player leaving the field of play in protest would be sanctioned accordingly. If an entire team left the field of play in protest then their club would forfeit the match and be subsequently fined in accordance Article 10 of UEFA’s regulations.

Finally, on Friday 15th February 2013 the Serbia-England appeal decisions were released. UEFA declined to expel Serbia from the 2015 European Under-21 Championship over the racist abuse aimed at England players. The Serbia Football Association General Secretary Zoran Lakovic said UEFA’s appeals panel has ordered the team to play two qualifiers behind closed doors as opposed to the one-match stadium closure imposed in December 2012. Lakovic also advised that the UEFA appeal body decided to uphold Serbia’s fine of €80,000, which had been widely expected to be increased. It was less than UEFA fined Nicklas Bendtner for showing a logo on his underpants during the European Championship.

UEFA also decided to reduce England Under-21 defender Steven Caulker’s two-match ban to a warning and one day of community football service. Midfielder Tom Ince’s original one-match ban was upheld on appeal. Furthermore, UEFA ordered a complete review of widespread sanctions arising from the playoff, including suspensions for four of Serbia’s players and two of Serbia’s coaches.

The UEFA appeal ruling was perhaps a real chance for one of the foremost governing bodies of the sport to really do something about racism in the game. FIFA, UEFA and even the FA have previously talked a good talk about eliminating racism from football but have rarely come up with the goods, so to speak. Alas we shall all have to wait until the next time racism rears its ugly head to see if the relevant authorities will finally take sufficient action. And yes there will be a next time, as unfortunate and disheartening as that sounds.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer and this article does not constitute legal advice.