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
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.”
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.