How To Make FIFA’s New Racism Sanctions Work

AC Milan's Kevin Prince-Boateng (left) and Mario Balotelli during a match that was suspended because of racist chants in May (Credit: Reuters)

FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, approved Friday a sweeping new package of sanctions on clubs and international soccer teams whose fans or players exhibit racist behavior during matches, the result of a task force formed after a spate of high-profile incidents marred matches across the globe in recent months.

The sanctions, approved by 99 percent of FIFA’s voting members in a silent vote, carry two stages of penalties, which are extended now not just to FIFA’s international matches but to domestic club-level matches as well. Under the first stage, clubs whose fans or players show racist behavior will face a warning, fines, or the penalty of playing a match behind closed doors without fans. A second or major incident will result in the loss of points, expulsion from a tournament, or relegation — meaning a club could be dropped from a top league to one in a lower tier. Individual players, meanwhile, could face five-match bans for racist comments on the field, where a new official will be tasked with the responsibility of monitoring for such incidents.

Those are all positive steps, but FIFA has taken positive steps before and still racism persists throughout the game. How can FIFA ensure that the new rules work to eliminate racism from pitches around the world? Here are a few ideas:

1. Create strong buy-in from member organizations: It is a good sign that the vote received 99 percent approval, even if some FIFA officials expressed dismay that it wasn’t unanimous. Now the hard part begins: getting all 209 of FIFA’s member countries to adopt the sanctions and apply them. The larger nations and federations should be no problem: the United States has comparably few issues with racism, and the European federation (UEFA) has already adopted provisions that are stronger, at least in some areas, than FIFA’s. Individual countries, like England, have taken aggressive steps to combat racism on the pitch and in the crowd. But ensuring that countries that have been hotbeds of soccer racism — like Russia, Italy, eastern European bloc countries, and Israel, to name only a few — adopt and implement the sanctions in an aggressive manner is crucial to success.

2. Don’t let relegation and points reductions be an empty threat: The idea that fans, players, and clubs need to be warned that racism isn’t welcome at soccer matches is, frankly, ridiculous. FIFA and continental and domestic governing bodies have been handing down warnings and fines for racist behavior for years to no avail — the incidents keep occurring, particularly against African and African-American players in Europe. What should be clear, then, is that warnings and fines aren’t going to do the trick, and should be used for only the most minor of incidents. The new sanctions carry serious weight and have a chance to actually work. A Turkish club held its own version of a “closed door” match after male fans couldn’t control violent behavior two years ago by allowing only women into the match, and the result was an extraordinary learning experience for everyone. Relegation and points deductions, meanwhile, carry serious ramifications that neither fans who want to see teams succeed nor club management who want the same and care about financials of being in a top-tier league will tolerate. The new sanctions have teeth for a reason, and FIFA and its affiliates need to demonstrate that they are willing to use them — and use them equitably. England’s Football Association, for instance, can’t commit to punishing a smaller Premier League club like Newcastle or Southampton for racist behavior while letting it slide at a more powerful club like Chelsea or Manchester City. And FIFA can’t remand World Cup qualifying points from Belarus or Slovakia if it isn’t willing to hold Italy and Germany to the same standard.

“You’ve got to applaud them for doing something about it, my thing is when they talk about the ‘level’ of racism,” Luther Blissett, a former English striker who now works to reduce racism in soccer, said Friday. “To me, racism is racism. Fifa have to let it be known where they are going to start this from. Any form of racism is serious enough for the bans to start, they should hit people hard straight away.”

3. Give players a voice: Kevin Prince-Boateng, the Ghanaian midfielder for AC Milan whose walking off the pitch set in motion the current effort to eradicate racism, participated on the task force that helped draft the current sanctions. But Prince-Boateng and other minority players need to have input in the implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of the new rules too. AC Milan’s Mario Balotelli, a frequent subject of insult from even his own club’s owners, threatened to walk off the pitch if subjected to further racist taunts last month, only to be told that he would be the one penalized if he did. After his brother was subjected to racist taunts from an English player, Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand drew scrutiny for not wearing FIFA’s “Say No To Racism” promotional t-shirts before a match. The pervasiveness of racism has created the belief among black players especially that the fight against racist behavior is a “lost war.” Giving minority players a voice in the system and a way to express concerns about potential shortcomings without fear of retribution on the field or off will help ensure that the sanctions accomplish what they are supposed to accomplish.