Has UEFA Finally Taken a Substantial Step in Stopping Racism in European Soccer?

Written by: Harry Colvin

On the 1st of September 2019, Romelu Lukaku, a black Belgian soccer player, stepped up to take a penalty that could win his side, Inter Milan, the game against a fellow Italian side, Cagliari. As he stood to take the penalty, he faced thousands of Cagliari die-hard supporters, known as the Cagliari Ultras, racially mocking and abusing him. The Italian men and women engaged in monkey chants and imitations as Lukaku struck the ball into the back of the net, securing a victory. He hardly celebrated but rather gave the opposing fans an intimidating death stare. This wasn’t a new experience for Cagliari’s regular match attendees, who are known for their racial abuse and launched similar attacks in the previous season against Juventus player Moise Kean. 

After the Inter-Cagliari match, Romelu Lukaku took to social media to release a statement on the incident. “Many players in the last month have suffered from racial abuse…Football is a game to be enjoyed by everyone and we shouldn’t accept any form of discrimination… we’ve been saying it for years and still no action.” In this statement, Lukaku stressed the call to action that players have been emphasizing for years. 

Even after Lukaku received support on social media from professional players and various fans, something unexpected and concerning occurred. A Facebook group representing the Inter Milan Ultras, a group Inter Milan superfans, released a statement, attempting to help Lukaku understand the Italian ‘ways’: “Please consider this attitude of Italian fans as a form of respect for the fact they are afraid of you for the goals… not because they hate you or they are racist” (ibid). This statement suggested that the Cagliari fans were only mimicking monkeys out of passion and respect, rather than with any racist intent. 

For the past few decades, racism from fans targeting players of color has been a major issue in European soccer as a whole, and The Union of European Football Association (UEFA) has been heavily ridiculed for not being assertive enough when it comes to racial abuse. UEFA began its “No To Racism” campaign in 2013, with UEFA’s General Secretary Gianni Infantino stating that their goal is to promote “inclusion, tolerance, and acceptance of diversity.” In reality, though, little has actually been done to address this problem and fans have continued to racially abuse players of color with no punishment. 

However, a month and a half after the Lukaku incident, we may have seen a major step in UEFA’s regulation of racial abuse. Before an international match between England and Bulgaria, UEFA announced a new three-step-procedure: (1) if the referee becomes aware of racist behavior, he will stop the game and will then request an announcement to be made over the public address system asking spectators to immediately stop any racist behavior, (2) if the racist behavior does not cease after the game has restarted, the referee will suspend the match for a reasonable amount of time and further announcement will be made over the public address system, (3) if the racist behavior continues after a second restart, the referee can can definitively abandon the match. The referee enforced the first two steps in the match between England and Bulgaria but did not end the match, although it was clear the racist behavior continued after the second restart. Nevertheless, this move from UEFA is the first of its kind. While it may not completely end racist behavior from match-going fans, threatening to end a match is a step in the right direction and has seemed to have influenced other associations throughout Europe. 

For example, earlier this November supporters of Hellas Verona racially abused Mario Ballotelli, a black Italian soccer player. Balotelli reacted to the monkey chants by punting the ball into the Verona stands and walking off the pitch in frustration before both his teammates and Hellas Verona players convinced him to stay on the pitch. Luca Castellini, the leader of the Verona Ultras, went on national radio soon after the incident, stating that Balotelli can never be completely Italian. He claimed that Balotelli “heard the abuse in his own head.” Serie A, the Italian first division, handed Hellas Verona a one-match partial stadium ban as punishment for the racial abuse, and Castellini was given a harsher punishment. The leader of the Ultras has been banned until 2030. 

UEFA is taking the right steps to reduce racial abuse in European soccer, but to exterminate it may be an impossible task. While racism in the streets may have been reduced in the past few years, stadiums seem to be an area that fans can let out their true beliefs. For decades, stadiums have been a place where racism goes unpunished and, in some cases, has even become the norm. While UEFA may not be able to change the core values of these racist members of society, taking the stadium away as an outlet for their beliefs is certainly a step in the right direction.