Serbia U21 vs England U21: Tackling Racism in Football

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Serbia U21 vs England U21: Tackling Racism in Football
Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images
Danny Rose was subjected to racist taunts

The setting was the Stadion Mladost in Kruševac for the early evening kick-off between Serbia’s and England’s Under-21 squads.

For lengthy portions of the match, Stuart Pearce’s young team were under pressure from the opposition; not only from the players on the pitch, who bombarded their box with crosses and long-range efforts, but also from the partisan crowd, who had decided quite early on that they would entertain themselves by throwing missiles at the nearest English player.

Still, it was relatively subdued behaviour, considering the track record of the culprits.

Eventually, the boisterous jibes soon became acts of outright bitterness when 19-year-old Connor Wickham rolled the ball into an empty net, giving England’s solid defensive performance a punctuation mark.

As the lads celebrated the goal, they were subjected to all manner of abuse—a hail of projectiles rained on them, insults were hurled, and some supporters even attempted to spit clear across the best part of eight metres at the visitors.

Then the final whistle went, and—pardon the pun—it all kicked off, turning the match into a tempestuous ruck that both nations were embroiled in, though the Serbians appeared vastly more hostile.

Sunderland loanee Danny Rose was particularly disturbed by something. He signalled his complaint by directing monkey gestures toward the crowd, the staff and maybe the viewers at home.

His reaction thereafter was ill-advised, as he kicked an unfortunately-positioned football into the stands. Apparently, this act represented dissent to referee Hüseyin Göçek, who showed the left-back his second yellow, culminating in a red card, even though the game had long been ended.

Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images
Rose is sent off after the final whistle

While the referee’s tenuous ruling is only vaguely understandable, Rose’s contained retaliation in the midst of some of the most sickening conduct ever to be witnessed in football was exemplary.

The debacle maddened me in a way I’ve never been before with football; not just because I relate to the issue as a black man, but also due to the fact that this provocation was ring-led by the Serbian personnel, and targeted at anybody with any affiliation to England. I dare say it was equally xenophobic as it was racially aggravated. 

Subsequently, the spotlight now falls dauntingly on UEFA, who must seek drastic measures for the prevention of another incident like this in the future.

UEFA make their stance on racism clear on their website when discussing its partnership to various support groups:

UEFA has reinforced its stand against racism and, together with the players' body FIFPro, is now actively supporting campaigns attempting to banish this evil from football and society. This is European football’s leading governing body’s stance against racism."

One such campaign is FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe), with whom UEFA have worked in tandem since 2001. FIFA also have a close association with the group.

To UEFA’s credit, they have, through ambassadorial means, openly endorsed their stance. They do this by, in their words:

“…staging events, issuing publications, and using the massive public and commercial platform of Europe's biggest football matches to press home a message of zero tolerance for any form of racism and discrimination, in favour of more respect for diversity.”

Yet the problem has persisted, so European football’s chief governing body have counteracted once more, handing out perfunctory fines for racist and/or discriminatory behaviour. Most recently, this was seen during the 2012 European Championship where Czech Republic’s Theodor Gebre Selassie and Italy’s Mario Balotelli were racially abused by sections of Russian and Spanish supporters, respectively.

UEFA are attempting to assert their position on this complex and large-scale concern with only small steps from sure feet. But, in light of the reprehensible scenes in Serbia, and UEFA’s influence within the international game, these provisions seem ineffective as a deterrent and in no way conducive with an organisation that intends to completely rid European football of what they themselves describe as “evil.”

T-shirts and advertisements cannot transform a way of life. If politics was swung on the sheer number of leaflets handed out, then there would be no point in printing the policies they uphold.

UEFA need to accept that they are not dealing with susceptible children, easily brainwashed by celebrity validations and empty promises; they’re dealing with centuries of ingrained cultural and societal intolerance, ignorance that is practically born into the civilians of the culpable countries.

Fines aren’t even an inconvenience anymore, considering the amount of money generated in football nowadays. Tens-of-thousands of euros sound like hefty sums but these fines are pocket-change to highly-paid footballers, let alone an entire country’s economy.

Football has also authorised the playing of matches behind closed doors to offset racism. This is about as close as they have come to meaningful deterrence: It was enforced by the Italian FA back in 2009, following the racial abuse of the then-Inter Milan striker Balotelli by Juventus fans during a 1-1 draw in the Serie A.

Michael Regan/Getty Images
England U21 coach Steve Wigley was attacked by Serbian staff and players

The punishment only spanned a single home match, though Italy are working along the peripheries of the right idea. Even so, ensuring that racial discrimination doesn’t occur for one night isn’t representative of the bigger picture.

Banning the fans from matches is a good basis for change, but UEFA could emphasise their abhorrence to such attitudes by banning the entire club from competitive football for an extended period. Ban them from the prestigious international tournaments for a year or two, thus declaring the seriousness of their offenses.

Why should the louts who characterise tumorous views within the beautiful game even be afforded the pleasure and privilege of watching their team compete?

Several football aficionados—including the victimised Rose—have bayed for an affirmative action as if they have been lavished with several years of experience handling football mediation. On the other hand, those who are actually in the position to take command of such affairs fail to move forthrightly far too often.

Bans for sustained periods appear to be the only viable remaining option as penance for the problem. Other options have been explored and exhausted.

Firstly—as previously alluded to—a ban will mean that the misbehavers will not be able to see their team compete prestigiously. The hope is that, during the absence, those responsible will reconsider putting their idiocy before their patriotic loyalties.

Secondly, it will serve as a warning to nations with similar outlooks, imploring those individuals who can influence the perpetrators—players, managers, ambassadors of the antagonistic populaces—to speak up without fear of being harmfully reprimanded.

Most importantly, a ban will be detrimental to the stability of the country’s footballing and societal financial development. If countries like Serbia are hit with a lengthy exclusion, they will lose millions in revenue gained through qualification, tourism and gate receipts. Ultimately, the sanction will yield a lasting effect worthy of maintaining decorum and instilling justice.

No more soft approaches and testimonies boasting that UEFA support the fight against racism; it’s time they show that they embody liberality by being the fight against discrimination.

Football’s worldwide administrations have acted feebly for so long that they have allowed their authority to diminish.

It’s improbable that they will be able to change prejudicial lifestyles—at least not overnight, and without aid—but it’s entirely possible to foil such views from marring sports any further.

If UEFA have the capability to swiftly ban several Turkish clubs from competing in Europe because of financial transgressions, then why can’t they implement the same thing for this more commonplace matter?

According to The Sun however, UEFA have failed to recognise the incident in their match report, and given that a comparable incident that occurred in the same fixture back in 2007 was only punished with a £16,000 fine, UEFA look set to dish out a similar penalty.

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