Champions League

Monday 28 July 2014

Richard Sadlier: Racism protest must get decisive response from UEFA

Richard Sadlier

Published 06/01/2013|05:00

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AC Milan Ghana midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, (right) is flanked by his teammate Mathieu Flamini as he gestures towards the crowd. A friendly match between AC Milan and lower division club Pro Patria was abandoned Thursday after racist chants were directed at Milan's black players.

If Kevin-Prince Boateng had conformed to procedure, as directed by Michel Platini and Gordon Taylor, very few people would even be aware of what happened.

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Before assessing the fallout from events in Italy last Thursday afternoon, let's first establish what actually went on. The friendly between AC Milan and nearby lower division team Pro Patria was abandoned after 26 minutes. Milan's Ghanaian midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng stopped the game by kicking the ball towards the monkey-chanting fans of Pro Patria. He then removed his shirt and began to walk off the field in protest. His team-mates immediately followed him and the referee had no choice but to abandon the game.

But it wasn't a knee-jerk response to an isolated incident. The guidelines in Italian football for dealing with offences of this nature have been set out for over two years. Referees are empowered to suspend games in the event of players reporting racist abuse from the stands. Boateng himself said he complained on three occasions to the referee, the tannoy announcer had asked for fans to stop their offensive behaviour and the players of Pro Patria had tried unsuccessfully to get their fans to stop their chanting. But the abuse continued.

Given UEFA's track record on dealing with issues of racism in the past, you can forgive Boateng and his team-mates for taking matters into their own hands. And given the reaction he and his team-mates have received, you can expect this form of protest will be repeated again and again.

Yes, it was a relatively consequence-free time to do it. Nobody is saying that walking off in a friendly with a local lower division team is the same as walking in a Champions League game. Nobody is saying this Milan team would have reacted the same way to the same abuse if they were 2-0 up in the final moments of a competitive game in the Nou Camp. This wasn't a game of significance, but that's not the point.

This action was addressed to UEFA. And though it was played out in the safest of environments – a meaningless friendly in January – the point was made very effectively. In doing what they did, they have created a new sense of urgency around the issue and how best to address it. And by doing it in a fixture outside the jurisdiction of Platini's UEFA, the ridiculous scenario of players being booked for this form of protest has been avoided.

UEFA's credentials in this area are almost non-existent. The meaningless fines and sanctions handed out in the past are laughable, nobody could argue that point, but I agree that they cannot be encouraging players to take matters into their own hands in scenarios like this. Deterring such behaviour is their only option, but they had umpteen opportunities to deter racist behaviour in the past and missed the mark.

Recently the Serbian FA was fined €80,000 for the violent and racist behaviour of their fans in an under 21 game with England. To put the severity of the punishment into context, Denmark striker Nicklas Bendtner was fined more than that by UEFA for wearing branded underpants during the European Championships.

It could be argued that the inaction of the authorities has left players like Boateng and his team-mates with little alternative, but the stakes have been raised and UEFA have a responsibility to act. Given the positive reaction to events in Milan, player walkouts will be commonplace from now on if they don't.

Of course, there is something unsettling about issuing total support for all players to respond to abuse in this way. And before I continue, let me point out there is a world of a difference between condoning racist behaviour from supporters and objecting to a blanket approval of mass walkouts in the face of all abuse. Is one throwaway remark from a drunken buffoon the

same as a prolonged racist chant from a mob? Just how hate-filled must a hate-filled comment be to warrant a walk-off? Go to a game yourself and listen out for what players have to put up with. Where exactly do you draw the line?

Boateng's protest was not met with universal approval. Clarence Seedorf spoke out against the Milan players, saying their actions could set a dangerous precedent. Yes, that could be the case, but the potential disruption to tv schedules and fixture lists is a tiny price to pay for taking on people who see no fault in their behaviour.

Footballers have always been seen as legitimate targets for disgusting and degrading abuse from supporters. They are constantly jeered and mocked, and despite some high-profile exceptions ( Eric Cantona being the most obvious one), they have generally just taken it. But at last we are finally at a stage where players are no longer expected to either accept or ignore what is said to them throughout games by supporters. The basic right of not having to face such provocation at work is something we are now extending to professional footballers.

Six months ago, Platini said all players who left the field during the Euros in scenarios like this would be punished. On Friday, everyone connected to AC Milan said they would repeat their actions again and again if needed.

This can only be seen as progress.

rsadlier@independent.ie

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