A supporter of Turkish football club Fenerbahce holds a banana during a match against fierce rivals Galatasaray. OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images
Last month the Ghanaian footballer Sulley Muntari left the pitch in disgust. During a match in Italy’s top league he was racially abused by a section of fans. He complained to the referee expecting a sympathetic ear, but instead was shown a yellow card. Fan-to-player racism is commonplace in professional football. Now football’s international governing body FIFA has introduced a new rule it hopes will stop racism on the terraces for good.
Different governing bodies have made gestural efforts to kick racism out of the game: the ‘No to Racism’ video, produced by the European football association UEFA and shown during Champions League matches, featured football’s biggest superstars condemning racial abuse. Yet, as the Muntari case and countless others show, these campaigns are yet to succeed.
FIFA’s new scheme is currently on trial at the Confederations Cup. During the tournament referees will be able to stop and suspend matches if they see or hear racist behaviour from fans.The order sounds simple enough: the match is abandoned, the supporters are unhappy, they root out the bad apples in their ranks and the abuse stops. FIFA President Gianni Infantino has called the changes “ground-breaking”.
However, in practice this type of collective punishment would be difficult to enact. Referees already experience massive pressure when making decisions on the pitch. Would they really call off a match potentially facing the wrath of thousands, even millions of fans?
Racism is a big deal… if I had this problem today, tomorrow or the next game I would walk off again." -Sulley Muntari, Pescara central midfielder
James M. Dorsey, author of ‘The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer’, told The World Weekly that while he applauds the sentiment, it is “an empty gesture”. Dr. Dorsey refers to FIFA’s “serious reputation problems”, sullied after numerous corruption scandals that saw its last president, Sepp Blatter, face criminal charges. The organisation, officially apolitical, is “tying itself up in knots” in an attempt to “look good”, Dr. Dorsey says.
Beyond corruption scandals, FIFA has come under fire from human rights groups for awarding the World Cup to known rights abusers. In preparation for the 2022 tournament in Qatar hundreds of foreign labourers have died in the construction of stadiums. Dr. Dorsey points to this hypocrisy: “to not be racially abused is a human right.” Looking at the treatment of workers in Qatar and Russia, it seems FIFA has a morality limit.