The prospect of a club being relegated because of racist behaviour by their supporters, or a country being disqualified from the World Cup for failing to deal with the issue, became a shock reality last night as Fifa reversed years of leniency towards racism.
Stirred, perhaps, by a call to arms from Lilian Thuram, the French international, or maybe by a growing realisation that strict measures were required to eradicate a reviving scourge, the world governing body introduced a range of Draconian punishments. Adopting a proposal by Sepp Blatter, the president, the executive committee decreed that racist behaviour by supporters will be punishable, in the first offence, by a three-point deduction, in the second, by a six-point subtraction, and a third by relegation.
Confederations and national associations which failed to incorporate the measures could be excluded from international football for two years .
The development is long overdue. Racist abuse has been a feature of matches involving East European teams for at least a decade and in recent years it has become increasingly prevalent in western Europe as well, notably in Spain and Italy. Black players are regularly targeted in Spain, a trait brought to wider notice when Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips suffered when playing for England in Madrid last season. In Italy this season Marc Zoro, of Messina, had to be persuaded not to leave the pitch after travelling Internazionale fans abused him while Roma's Ultras displayed banners suggesting visiting Livorno fans, and those of rivals Lazio, should be sent to Nazi death camps.
Roma had their ground closed, a relatively severe sanction. Normally, as was the case with the Spanish Football Association after Madrid, token fines are levied, £44,700 in that case, £6,200 in the recent example of Real Zaragoza fans abusing Samuel Eto'o. Indeed, Patrick Vieira was actually fined £2,300 by Uefa in 2003 for complaining the European body were not tough enough on racism after he and other Arsenal players were abused at Eindhoven and Valencia.
Vieira's view was understandable. Two years previously Thuram, his international team-mate, had spoken in the first Fifa Conference against Racism in Buenos Aires. Fifa's response was to introduce an Anti-Discrimination Day.
Between Buenos Aires and Zurich, Fifa officials appear to have had a Pauline conversion. Maybe it was Thuram's latest appeal. "Certain people take football hostage," he said yesterday, describing racism as a "plague".
This time the response was not gesture politics but hard sanctions, though one fears the lawyers could profit more than anyone. There is an obvious risk of supporters attempting to get rival teams banned, or racist groups hijacking a match to publicise their agenda.
Blatter, who described the Real Zaragoza fine as "ridiculous" said: "I have repeatedly stressed Fifa's and my firm personal stance against racism and discrimination but recent events have demonstrated that there is a need for more severe measures." Fifa's response comes two days after the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, followed an impassioned plea by Rio Ferdinand by passing a resolution which gave referees the power to abandon matches.
The Football Association were among the first to recognise the issue, probably because the game in England was one of the first to be multi-ethnic, and thus one of the first to experience racism. It now has a good record of anti-racist work but cannot be complacent. It is less than three years since the FA were fined £68,000 for racist chants at an international against Turkey at Sunderland.
The new penalties
* MATCH SUSPENSIONS
Referees given power to suspend matches in which racist abuse takes place.
* POINTS DEDUCTIONS
First offence to be punished by a three-point deduction, six for a second.
Further offences to be punished by relegation
Serial offenders may be expelled from league and national associations face two-year international ban.