Racism in football: Incidents, punishments & players subjected to abuse

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Figures within the sport have been vocal in their condemnation of discriminatory behaviour, but how exactly is it being dealt with?

How exactly does racism manifest itself in football?

Simple: the same way it does in any other walk of life. It happens when a person is targeted and discriminated against based on the colour of their skin, their ethnicity or their nationality.

It can happen on the pitch from player to player, it can happen in the dressing room or on the training ground. It can also emanate from the stands, when groups of supporters take it upon themselves to abuse an individual or individuals on the pitch.

One of the most common manifestations of racist discrimination against players comes in the crude form of 'monkey chants' or similarly themed songs, while fruit such as bananas - which are associated with monkeys and apes - have been thrown at victims as well. The stark and offensive implication is that those being targeted are somehow sub-human.

The problem has reared its ugly head for decades in the sport and, despite genuine attempts to tackle it head on, by clubs, associations and groups such as Kick It Out, players are still regularly subject to abuse.

Indeed, a number of elite-level stars have been affected by the issue in recent months, with incidents involving the England national team, Juventus star Moise Kean and Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly showing that an undercurrent of ignorance and hate still plagues the game at the very top.

Thankfully, it has prompted a greater level of engagement with the idea of confronting racism in football - and, by extension, wider society - with players past and present doing their bit to shine a light on something that has been a scourge.

How is racism in football punished?

Say no to racism

The question of how racism in football is and should be punished by the game's authorities has been considered regularly over the years with the discussion naturally intensifying in the aftermath of incidents of racist abuse.

Fines, stadium closures & bans

FIFA's disciplinary code dictates that a player found to have engaged in racist behaviour will be suspended for at least five games, issued with a stadium ban and fined at least CHF20,000 (£15k/$20k), which goes up to CHF30,000 (£23k/$30k) in the case of an official. Points deductions and relegation (or disqualification in the case of a knockout competition) are also applicable in cases where several players have engaged in racist behaviour simultaneously.

When a team's supporters are found guilty of behaving in a racist manner the association or club are fined CHF30,000 (£23k/$30k) and, depending on the severity of the situation, additional sanctions - behind-closed-doors games, match forfeit, points deductions and disqualification - may also be applied. Further to that, if an individual is identified and found guilty of such behaviour they will receive a stadium ban of at least two years.

European football's governing body UEFA also deals directly with the issue in its disciplinary regulations and its punishments essentially fall along the same lines as those of FIFA, but the minimum suspension period is 10 games and fines start at €50,000 (£43k/$56k).

Is enough being done?

However, any time there is an incident of racist abuse, either from a player or set of supporters, the consensus is that the current disciplinary sanctions do not serve as enough of a punishment or deterrent. Tottenham defender Danny Rose, for example, believes that it is hard to expect real change to take effect when punishments remain relatively lenient.

"Obviously it is a bit sad. But when countries only get fined what I’d probably spend on a night out in London what do you expect? When the punishment is not as harsh what do you expect?" Rose said after he and some of his England team-mates were subjected to abuse during a European Championship qualifier against Montenegro in March 2019.

"You see my manager [Mauricio Pochettino] get banned for two games for just being confrontational against Mike Dean at Burnley. But yet a country can only get fined a little bit of money for being racist. It’s just a bit of a farce at the minute. So that’s where we are at in football and until there’s a harsh punishment there’s not much else we can expect."

GFX Danny Rose on racism

That sentiment has been echoed by Rose's England team-mate Raheem Sterling, a player who has been vocal about the issue during the course of his career, having previously been on the receiving end of abuse.

“It's 2019 now and I keep saying it's a shame to see this keep going on. We can only bring awareness to it and light to the situation,” Sterling said. “Now it's time for the people in charge to put a real stamp on it. You can fine someone, but what's that going to do?

“You have to make it harder. You need to punish either the whole fanbase so they can't come to games... you have to do something that's going to really make them think twice."

Should players walk off?

A growing number of individuals within the game have called for referees to stop the game and for players to respond directly to incidents of racism by stopping the game or walking off the pitch. Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp and Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri have suggested such action be taken, while England captain Harry Kane said he would back his team-mates if such an event arose.

It is a view that is shared by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin. "The moment a match is stopped, or it's not played, I think that 90 per cent of normal people in the stadium would kick the asses of those idiots," said Ceferin. "It's 2019, it's not 100 years ago."

However, Sterling has made the point that walking off the pitch is like conceding defeat to those who abuse. The Manchester City star said: "I personally wouldn't agree with it. Try to go out and win the game. I think that will hurt them even more. They're only trying to get you down and if you do walk off the pitch, they kind of win. To score a goal or win a match, that beats them."

GFX Aleksander Ceferin UEFA racism

Even when racist behaviour by football fans has been identified outside of a stadium, clubs themselves have attempted to send a message to the perpetrators that it is simply not acceptable. In such cases it is not uncommon for supporters to have their season tickets revoked or lifetime bans to be issued.

For example, in April 2019, a group of Chelsea supporters were filmed singing a discriminatory song about Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah in a pub, leading to condemnation from the London club, which promised "the strongest possible action" would be taken against those in the video. Liverpool also condemned the actions of the Blues fans on that occasion, describing the video as "dangerous and disturbing". The Reds also involved the authorities by contacting Merseyside police in relation to the incident.

Which footballers have suffered racist abuse?

Raheem Sterling Kick it Out

Footballers from different ethnic backgrounds have been victims of racist abuse in the game for decades and it's a sad reflection on football and society as a whole that such abuse persists so stubbornly today.

Viv Anderson won two European Cups with Nottingham Forest during his playing days as well as representing English giants Arsenal and Manchester United. He is also known for being the first black footballer to represent England at senior international level. Anderson can look back with pride on a long and successful career, but the defender was subjected to vicious abuse, which included verbal assaults and being pelted by fruit - which was all too common during the 1970s and 1980s.

"It was one of those things you had to get on with," Anderson told Goal in 2018. "If you didn’t, you wouldn’t further your career and that’s really fundamentally what I wanted to be: I wanted to be a footballer. I wanted to play at the top level and try to achieve something."

Anderson, along with other stars such as Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham, led the way for black players in England, but, while times have changed, racism remains a problem. Indeed, former Liverpool and England midfielder John Barnes reminded Sky Sports viewers in the aftermath of the England-Montenegro racism incident that such behaviour occurs "every single week".

"We go to Montenegro once every six months, whereby every week we face it here in droves. So what is more serious? Going to Montenegro once a year or black people facing this every single day of their lives?" said Barnes. "Because it is high profile, we say, 'let's do something about it', but we are really not tackling the issue here."

Aforementioned individuals such as Sterling, Rose and Salah have all been targeted, while Tottenham's South Korean forward Heung-min Son revealed that he had also been on the receiving end of racist abuse. They are not alone in that regard and it is certainly not a problem that is unique to the Premier League or England; it is a global problem.

Juventus striker Moise Kean is the most recent high-profile example from Serie A, with the Italy international on the receiving end of abuse from some Cagliari fans in April 2019. Kean joins the likes of Mario Balotelli, Ruud Gullit, Kalidou Koulibaly, Kevin Prince-Boateng and Nigel de Jong in being discriminated against purely on the grounds of skin colour while playing in Italy.

Former Schalke and Germany striker Gerald Asamoah suffered abuse during his time playing in the Bundesliga, while Mesut Ozil, after taking the decision to retire from international duty, notably hit out at the perception of him not being German due to his Turkish heritage, saying: "I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose."

The list could go on because the reality is that the issue is replicated across the world and it can also be found at all levels of the game. The only hope is that, with more direct engagement and greater light being shone on the problem, it will soon be eradicated and left in the past.