Fifa's hardline new rules to tackle racist and discriminatory behaviour at football matches came into force yesterday amid confusion about how they will be policed and scepticism over their effectiveness.
In theory, any club where a spectator is identified as engaging in racist, homophobic or otherwise "contemptuous" behaviour, will be docked three points for a first offence and six points for a second. A third offence will lead to automatic relegation. In cup games, domestic or international, including the Champions' League, the sanctions include expulsion from the competition.
Players and officials are also subject to the rules, which will be applicable at all levels, including at this summer's World Cup. In theory, any three transgressions - for example three separate incidents of "contemptuous" behaviour by fans, such as Nazi salutes - could lead to a country being kicked out of the tournament.
The new rules were agreed in principle under changes to article 55 of Fifa's disciplinary code a fortnight ago. Fifa's general secretary, Urs Linsi, has now written to every FA in the world, saying: "The amendments to article 55 must also be enforced within [your] association." His letter arrived at Soho Square and other FA headquarters yesterday, to much bemusement.
The official response from Soho Square was: "The FA rules incorporate Fifa regulations as a matter of course. We already have rules that dictate that cases are handled on an individual basis, and our sanctions are open ended, which means points deduction has already been a possibility."
Privately, FA officials have concerns that the new rules are "unworkable". Two examples from this season support that. Gillingham's goalkeeper, Jason Brown, suffered racial abuse at Chesterfield last month. Under the letter of the new law, Chesterfield, if found guilty, would have been fined, forced to play one game behind closed doors and been docked three points. But no process is in place to pursue such action, let alone mete out punishment, and Fifa has given no practical guidance as to how this might happen. The FA's priority has always been to deal with individual offenders, not clubs.
Equally, Tottenham admitted last month that "a spate of homophobic songs and chants" had been heard at White Hart Lane and the club were applauded for an initiative to stamp it out. Under article 55, they would be fined and docked points, as would Blackburn Rovers have been in November 2004 when one of their fans was found guilty of racially abusing Dwight Yorke.
Anti-racism campaigners have welcomed Fifa's action in principle while remaining sceptical about effective implementation. "Not so much in England, but in a lot of European countries, racist behaviour is going unnoticed and is not being acted upon, so highlighting the issue is welcome," said Piara Powar, the director of Kick It Out. "But there's no way that any disciplinary body will dock points for the displaying of a single offensive banner, and it wouldn't be effective."
He added that unrealistic sanctions that are never actually used could make the problem worse, especially in countries like Italy, where education rather than repression is what is required, and where these measures could increase hostility. "What we don't want is a law that should be addressing anti-racism contributing to the problem," Powar said.
The Italian FA will convene a special meeting today to discuss article 55. It was welcomed more warmly in Spain, where racism from right-wing ultra groups has regularly blighted high-profile football matches. Barcelona's Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o recently threatened to leave the pitch during a game following such abuse in Zaragoza.
The Spanish Football Federation, which has been criticised for weak measures taken against racism, stated that it will incorporate Fifa's instructions once they have been ratified by the domestic Upper Council of Sports (CSD), effectively the sports ministry. The CSD is unlikely to object since it has been preparing a tough government bill to deal with violence, racism, xenophobia and intolerance in sport.
CSD Secretary Jaime Lissavetksy said: "What happened to Eto'o cannot be permitted to happen again. The Government is sick of football telling us that we are only talking about a 'sick few' or that this is something that also happens in other countries. It will not be permitted in Spain." How any new measures will be enforced in stadiums is another issue.
Perhaps those Barcelona fans who routinely greet Real Madrid's Roberto Carlos with monkey noises will think twice before doing so during Saturday's match at the Nou Camp. Or maybe not.
Fifa's new penalties
* First offence three points docked
* Second offence six points docked
* Third offence relegation if a league match, disqualification if a cup game or representative match (eg World Cup)Reuse content