“There is no racism [on the field], but maybe there is a word or gesture that is not correct. The one affected by this should say ‘this is a game’ and shake hands.”: So said Sepp Blatter, president of Fifa, in 2011 on the day the Football Association charged Luis Suarez with racially abusing Patrice Evra.
Yesterday Blatter, still immovable on top of football’s governing body, lauded the decisive action taken by the NBA against Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, over racist comments he made in a recording leaked to the media.
Michel Platini also praised the severe penalties imposed on Sterling by Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner. Silver has only been in his post since February and this was his first significant challenge. Blatter has been in his position since 1998. Platini has overseen European football as president of Uefa since 2007.
Uefa banned Nicklas Bendtner and fined him for wearing sponsored underwear during Euro 2012. The fine was larger than those imposed on the Russian and Croatian federations for their fans racially abusing opponents during the tournament. It was five times the amount imposed on Spain for their supporters racially abusing Mario Balotelli.
Spain crops up time and again. Barcelona’s Dani Alves has played there for 11 years and, as he pointed out after his latest instance of abuse at Villarreal on Sunday, it is an issue that is not going away. That appears to be the hope of some in football – that one day it will just go away.
The head of the Spanish FA, Angel Maria Villar Llona, has been in situ since 1988. It is a decade since Luis Aragones’ “black shit” description of Thierry Henry was greeted with an indifferent shrug. In the last two seasons Barcelona fans have racially abused Real Madrid players and Madrid fans have racially abused Barça players. And all to background assertions from Fifa and Uefa of “zero tolerance”.
Uefa last season punished three clubs with stadium closures for racist chanting, all in the lesser leagues of eastern Europe. Lazio were the biggest club sanctioned and on appeal had a full stadium closure reduced to a partial one. As in Spain, racist abuse continues in Italy – Balotelli and his Milan team-mates suffered it at Roma last season.
Britain has its problems, although racist abuse within grounds has become comparatively rare. The FA’s leadership on the issue has been doubted by players and it is leadership athletes crave. There have been admiring tweets about Silver – Sterling’s fine of nearly £1.5m is for once in a disciplinary process truly eye-watering, let alone the life ban and pressure to get out of the sport. The message is clear: there is no place for your sort in our game.
NBA players had a part in threatening action but Silver’s response was swift and resolute – Kevin-Prince Boateng’s walk-off last year jolted Fifa into introducing stiffer penalties. Fifa did ban Croatia’s Josip Simunic for 10 games for making fascist salutes but no football team has had points stripped or been expelled from competition. No line in the sand has been drawn.
With its franchise system there is greater central control in US top-tier basketball, as in much of US sport, but there is still plenty to admire, not only in basketball but also American football. The Rooney Rule increased the number of black coaches and at no cost to the sport’s integrity or the success of the teams who chose them. It works and is needed here. The contrast this week between football’s banana-eating campaign – striking but to what end? – and the punishment of Sterling – striking and to an abrupt end – is acute.
There are those in the US who believe the NBA should have stood up to Sterling long ago but Silver has certainly done so now. What football would give for such decisive leadership from just one of its pontificating presidents.