The last few weeks have been fraught with headlines about racism in European soccer in the wake of John Terry's four-game suspension by the FA for racially abusing QPR's Anton Ferdinand last season.
The decision has come under sharp criticism from Terry's camp. They claim that the not guilty verdict Terry received from criminal court for the case over the summer should have been sufficient to prevent any sanctions from the FA.
The rest of the soccer world is dissatisfied with the result for a different reason: they think it's far too lenient.
Liverpool fans especially are up in arms over the fact that the Chelsea captain has been suspended for only half the time that Luis Suarez was suspended for for similar racial abuse of Manchester United defender Patrice Evra.
But England is not the only place where racism is a problem in soccer. Unfortunately, the rest of the soccer world is not as well-equipped to deal instances of racism as the English are. In the United Kingdom, racially abusing another person is a criminal offense, and punishable by law. Such laws are harder to come by in other parts of Europe, particularly places like Italy.
Italy is still very much an old-world country. The old ways, in which racism was a common and accepted part of life, are still very much alive, and the current population trends in Italy—immigrants have been outpacing native Italians in birth rate since the turn of the century and figure to overcome them as the majority sooner or later—only exacerbate the problem. The derogatory term vu cumpra is not a rare thing to hear when immigrants are discussed, even by more liberal Italians.
But the middle and lower classes that make up soccer clubs' ultra groups—the ones most directly threatened economically by the influx of immigrants from northern Africa—are the ones most prone to such racist outbursts, and it comes out at soccer matches.
Instances of on-field racial abuse between players during a match are rarely heard about in public in Serie A. That's probably got less to do with a lack of occurrence and more to do with the fact that there are no legal repercussions for such actions in Italy the way there are in the UK. But what is all too familiar in print are instances of such behavior coming from the fans.
Black players are frequently subject to abuse from fans in Italy. Mario Balotelli—born in Italy to Ghanaian parents and adopted by an Italian family at age 3, and fiercely proud of his Italian citizenship—was the frequent recipient of racist chants during his time with Inter. Such instances were high-profile, such as a major instance against Juventus in 2009, but lightly punished. A similar instance in the same season during a game between Inter and Roma saw the Giallorossi get off laughably easy—they were fined 8,000 Euros on the condition that they took steps to ensure it never happened again.
Such slaps on the wrist will not prevent the scourge of racism from continuing to be a major stain on the Italian game. The message needs to be sent to fans in Italy—and other countries in the south and east of Europe where racism is rampant in the game—that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.
Stiffer punishments must be levied, and FIGC and UEFA have a prime opportunity to start swinging the proverbial big stick sitting in front of them. A few weeks ago traveling fans of Lazio were accused of directing racist chants—in particular monkey noises, a favorite of racist fans in Europe—toward Tottenham Hotspur players Aaron Lennon, Jermain Defoe, and Andros Townsend during the Europa League clash between the two sides.
This disgusting behavior was all the more brazen considering the fact that UEFA president Michel Platini was in attendance. UEFA has launched an investigation, and when that investigation is complete, UEFA must take decisive action. In addition to heavy fines, Lazio's fans should not be allowed to travel to their next away match in the Europa League, and the club should be forced to play its next Europa League home match behind closed doors. Similar sanctions should be considered domestically by FIGC.
Barring fans from the stadium will send them a message that racist actions will not be tolerated in a more direct way than fines to the club. All other methods have tried and failed. Maybe when fans see locked gates and the effects of a game or two with empty seats on the club's finances, they'll think twice before opening their mouths to spew hate at an player of another race.
Such a solution has the added effect of giving clubs an added incentive to take decisive action to keep their fans behaved and prevent fans who partake in such behavior from entering their stadiums in the first place. The hit to the pocketbook—especially if a team ends up a repeat offender—could end up rendering a team unable to afford transfers that might be key to keeping them competitive, or even in the top flight at all.
Is it a fool's hope to think that racism could be totally eliminated from the game? Until the human species as a whole takes a more enlightened approach, probably. But that doesn't mean one should not try. UEFA and FIFA have long had prominent and well-promoted anti-racism campaigns, but their actions so far have done little to truly push back against the tide of racism in the beautiful game. It's time for them to put their money where their mouth is, and implement measures that will truly hit clubs where it hurts to push against this ignorance as much as humanly possible.