The English reaction to Uefa sanctions for racist incidents is now so predictable as to be almost comforting: general, immediate scorn, and another airing for Nicklas Bendtner’s boxer shorts. The deluge began this time within seconds of Uefa announcing its disciplinary committee’s verdict on the shocking abuse from a section of Bulgaria’s supporters, targeted at England’s black players during the European Championship qualifying match on 14 October.
The sanction – a full stadium closure for Bulgaria’s next international match, a second full closure suspended for two probationary years, and a €75,000 (£64,800) fine – is just tokenism, went the prevailing wisdom, and shows Uefa does not really care about racism. English football’s anti-racism campaign, Kick It Out, said it was “disheartened but not surprised”, called on Uefa to explain its decision-making – which it certainly should, much more clearly – then went further and called for the whole sanctions system to be overhauled.
The €100,000 fine levied on Bendtner at the 2012 European Championship for “ambush marketing” – flashing boxer shorts branded with the publicity-gobbling bookmaker Paddy Power after he scored for Denmark against Portugal – made its mandatory appearance, presented as the barometer of Uefa’s skewed values. The fact that the €100,000 was confiscation of the money Paddy Power paid Bendtner struggles for a mention, as does the reality that a full stadium closure is a significant financial penalty, particularly for a country like Bulgaria.
Of course the sanction is fair game for criticism and argument, particularly in these disturbing times of revived and rising racism. It is very difficult in any field of activity for punishments to really fit crimes, and for many this is inadequate.
Piara Powar, the executive director of the Europe-wide Fare network of football anti-racism campaigns, formerly Kick It Out’s long-term chief executive, worked with Uefa on developing this sanctions framework in 2013, but he argued it should have been more strongly applied against Bulgaria. Powar says that in general he believes these sanctions work, that partial or full stadium closures do make a strong public statement, a broadcast humiliation and financial hit for a country or club. But he said Uefa should have jumped a step in the sanctions process, to expulsion from the tournament, because this is the third such incident of racism by Bulgarian “ultra” gangs this year, and there is an intensely worrying contagion of far-right hate in parts of Eastern Europe. The Liverpool player Rhian Brewster tweeted his dismay at the penalty for Nazi salutes and racism, saying “The world needs to wake up”.
Yet English football fans competing for the weariest Uefa put-down might be wise to recall the reaction in Bulgaria of the English FA chairman, Greg Clarke. He declined to mount the high horse too readily, grimacing that we have a problem or two ourselves. The very next weekend the players of Haringey Borough did in north London what the England team declined to do in Bulgaria and walked off the pitch, after their goalkeeper, Valery Pajetat, said he had been racially abused by supporters of homely, West Country family club, Yeovil. A Manchester United supporter was thrown out of Old Trafford for allegedly racially abusing Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, and subsequently banned. Police and club investigations were instigated into alleged abuse by Bristol City fans of supporters from Luton Town at their match in the Championship.
The penalties for such individual acts of racism are applied to the fans themselves, who may be banned or prosecuted, not to the clubs. That is perhaps understandable but the effect is that on the same evening that Uefa was being ridiculed and Bendtner’s pants were trending, Haringey Borough were preparing to replay their FA Cup fourth-round qualifying tie against Yeovil, like nothing ever happened.
Powar is not alone in arguing that the anti-discrimination fight is being dangerously compromised, as Britain rudely departs from the European Union following a Leave campaign based on anti-immigrant lies and demonisation.
Many Brexit proponents say they are not motivated by racism or xenophobia but hostility to other countries and their people has become acceptable and normal, indulged as our new national mission by government policy and a prime minister with a long-standing casual racism habit. Increasing incidents in football reflect this, and while Uefa’s regime should certainly explain itself, we should also, as football people say, have a long hard look at ourselves.