Racism in football will never be a thing of the past

Editor’s Note:

Story highlights

CNN World Sport producer Harry Reekie on the problem of racism in soccer

"Racism in Football" documentary examines turning point in attitudes toward topic

The game's authorities have a new resolve to tackle discrimination in the game

Reekie: It will take generations for racism to be a thing of the past in football

CNN  — 

Watching dozens of crazed supporters trying to set fire to a stadium makes you question your love of football.

I was standing in Partizan Belgrade’s aging ground in Serbia’s capital, where a narrow victory over fierce city rivals Red Star had seen the home side clinch the domestic title. It was the most intense and intimidating sporting atmosphere I have ever experienced, with passionate hatred spewing from every direction.

We had traveled to Serbia to film for the “World Sport presents: Racism in Football” documentary – a project that has somewhat taken over my life in recent months.

Parts of Eastern Europe have a reputation, rightly or wrongly, for harboring racism; supposedly a hotbed for right-wing groups.

When I mentioned to a friend an urge to see for myself, he cheerily suggested going to the “Eternal Derby” as they call it in Belgrade. “You should go and watch Partizan versus Red Star – it’s the most dangerous game in Europe.”

Read: Year Zero in soccer’s racism fight?

As it turns out, he wasn’t far wrong. Almost every negative aspect humanity can offer was visible that evening. Hatred, intimidation, violence, verbal and physical abuse, arson. It was a melting pot of society’s worst traits. At one point, riot police had to break up a mass brawl among three sections of Partizan’s own supporters.

These weren’t even rival fans – they were on the same side – and looked like they were trying to kill each other. At the end of the match, it was the Red Star supporters who started the fires. Amazed, I turned to a policeman. “Don’t worry,” he smiled back at me. “They always try to burn down the stadium when they lose.”

But even in such an extreme environment, one thing we did not encounter in Belgrade was racism. I’ll be honest, as a producer putting together a “racism in football” documentary, if it existed, I wanted to capture it on camera.

The game was in a country where racism has endured and been punished in the past. It was about as passionate a local derby as you can imagine, and the away side were fielding two black players in a country where they are a huge minority, and therefore an easy target for ignorant supporters. But not one incident was visible as far as our three-man team could see.

What struck me in that hate-filled environment was how racism and discrimination go well beyond every other form of taboo.

It was socially acceptable for those supporters to be violent; no-one was arrested when fires were started, no-one ejected when the riot police moved in. But racism goes much further than that, and what is pleasing is that football’s authorities have begun to recognize as much.

For years, the general public in the UK, where I am from, has scoffed with every paltry fine handed out as punishment by European football’s governing body UEFA for incidents of racism.

Until recently, FIFA has done little more to take a stand as ruler of the world game. And although I empathize with that derision through English eyes, I think it’s fair to say the levels of sanctions handed out by authorities in the recent past have been nothing short of scandalous.

The example of Danish player Nicklas Bendtner being fined almost three times more for showing commercially branded underwear than the Russian FA was fined for racist behavior by its fans in Euro 2012 is an example often highlighted.

And with good reason. Surely few would disagree about the worrying disparity between the two incidents, no matter in which country you grew up?

The event that changed everything, or at the very least sparked genuine momentum, is Kevin-Prince Boateng’s walkoff against Pro Patria in January.

In the simplest terms, the public outcry and media coverage it provoked left FIFA with nowhere to turn. World football’s governing body had been up against it since president Sepp Blatter told my colleague Pedro Pinto that all racism should be solved with a handshake, despite his insistence those comments were misunderstood.

Boateng’s decision to walk off when faced with monkey chants from the crowd finally provoked Blatter to set up an anti-discrimination task force, headed by the impressive Jeffrey Webb, and the recommendations subsequently suggested were then accepted by an overwhelming majority at the recent FIFA Congress in Mauritius.

I have had the fortune of meeting Webb in person on two occasions over the past four months. In Zurich shortly after the task force was set up and again in Mauritius.

So often FIFA has been accused of having a “head in the clouds” attitude towards racism in football. “FIFA don’t care,” people often say. Well, let me assure you, Webb certainly cares.

He is an intelligent, personable man who carries himself with some assurance. He understands the enormous complexities of the subject and is passionate about making a stand against racism. I feel more confident football will slowly begin to combat racism under his leadership.

Boateng himself is another impressive individual. The day after his walkoff against Pro Patria, the AC Milan star spoke to CNN about what happened. Very few footballers would have had the courage to do that. Subsequently, I have also met him twice in person.

Once at the United Nations in Geneva where he was invited to attend a global day against discrimination as an ambassador, and the second at AC Milan’s training ground in May when he popped into the room where we were to talk to Mario Balotelli on the same topic.

He is wonderfully articulate, a fine ambassador for the cause and something of an unlikely hero, a role he says he is just about comfortable with. I sincerely hope his involvement continues in the months and years to come, for it is patently clear the likes of Webb actually listen to what he has to say.

But what will the sanctions imposed by FIFA in Mauritius actually achieve? Even as I sat in that congress hall, I asked myself the same question.

To even begin to answer, it’s important to try to contextualize the issue, to understand the overwhelming complexities of racism in general. It is a subject I have lived over the past four months, and the more I read and the more questions I ask, the breadth of the social history and geography involved becomes more dauntingly apparent.

While planning what to put in the documentary, a close colleague suggested how fascinating and relevant the politics of South African football would be.

Another asked how I was going to factor in the tensions and history surrounding football in the Middle East, using the European Under-21 Championship in Israel as a peg. The possibilities are endless. And a hopeless task awaits anyone even attempting to cover it comprehensively.

The method I use to try to separate the issues in my own head is to filter everything into “actions” and “attitudes.”

By “action,” I refer to the specific aspect of attempting to combat racism in football. Unquestionably this is something that needed to be addressed by authorities who hither to had been mostly burying their heads in the sand.

The creation of a task force was a positive step forward and through the sanctions imposed in Mauritius, every single national association in world football under FIFA’s banner – 209 to be exact, more than the member nations of the U.N. – have a framework on which to base punishments.

An incident of racist abuse from a player will now automatically carry a five-match ban, no matter if it occurs in Washington, Warsaw or Wellington.

UEFA and European football advocated minimum 10-game bans at their recent congress in London, and by very definition, suggested FIFA’s five-game ruling was not stringent enough.

Blatter publicly lambasted the $65,000 fine handed to Roma by Serie A’s governing body Lega Calcio, after the club’s fans racially abused Balotelli in May, and he wrote to the association’s chairman asking for it to be reconsidered. Until recently, that simply would not have happened.

Balotelli told us in our exclusive interview that he would walk off the pitch the next time he was racially abused. The story we put out was picked up by media organizations in more than 70 countries.

And all that came after he told us he didn’t want to talk about racism. Balotelli’s antics often let him down. But he has had the courage to stand up to racists both on and off the pitch, and for that, he deserves a lot of praise in my book. The more high-profile stars who speak out, the better.

This increased exposure has gone hand-in-hand with an explosion of coverage via social networks and smaller media organizations.

If racial abuse occurs anywhere, in stadiums, in the bar before the game, in the street – you name it – the likelihood nowadays is that someone will be there to film it and post it online. We shouldn’t underestimate just how much of a deterrent that is.

All this adds up to an increasing chance of racists being caught, reported and punished. Clubs could now face points deductions or relegation if their fans or players are found guilty of second offenses.

Some supporters may be passionate to be point of fanatical, but they are rarely stupid to the core. If deterrents are put in place – and, crucially, enforced by national associations – then I have little doubt the number of racist incidents will slowly begin to decline in years to come.

If examples are made then supporters will quickly become aware that shouting abuse from the stands will directly hinder their team’s chances of doing well in the league, winning trophies or qualifying for major competitions, and that is what they really care about.

We will see when the next incident happens if FIFA and UEFA uphold their “zero tolerance” mantra and demand that a national association actually follows through with the punishments now written into FIFA’s global rulebook.

But the key aspect for me in the whole issue of racism is that of “attitudes.” Racism spreads across the world; it is deep-rooted into the framework of almost every society on the planet.

It is in any conceivable manner far and away a more complex and important subject than sport. And while football can set an example to the world like no other pastime, any suggestion that it can provoke a tangible change in attitudes is unrealistic.

There may have been racism I couldn’t hear in Belgrade that night. In the end, what does it matter? What does it prove either way? If I had heard one racist comment, does that make Serbia a racist country? Of course not. Does hearing no racism suggest not one person in that stadium held offensive beliefs?

We’re talking about an issue which utterly transcends football and should be mindful not to combine the two. Maybe one day, society in every country may begin to understand that racist views are not acceptable to voice, but changing people’s beliefs and opinions can only be achieved through education and progressive social integration over generations.

When we sat down with Boateng at the U.N., he said something which lodged in my mind.

“I have a little son now and I want to take care of things because I want him to grow up in a nice place and not a place where he has to be confronted by racism.”

It is a noble ambition, but one that could take centuries to realize.