In a recent event involving a UEFA Champions League football match between Paris Saint-German (PSG) and Istanbul Basaksehir, a touchline incident involving Pierre Webo (Assistant Coach of Istanbul Basaksehir) stirred the world of football agog when the Romanian fourth official, named Sebastian Coltescu was alleged to have used a racial comment against Webo. Pictures and video coverages emerging afterward, showed that the game had to be stopped at the 14th minute, and the major protagonist; Demba Ba was seen challenging the statement of the fourth official, who was alleged to have referred to Webo as “the black guy”. In a show of solidarity, the PSG players led by Neymar Jnr and Kylian Mbappe, had to walk off the pitch alongside their opponents while the match was temporarily postponed to the next day, being 9th December 2020. UEFA subsequently issued a statement that it was going to investigate the incident. The outcome of the investigation is expected to either clear Coltescu of wrongdoing or sanctions issued where appropriate. It is important to note that as of the time of writing this article, no verdict had been delivered, neither does this article seek to pass judgment on the incident of 8th December 2020. However, it is important to reiterate the need to identify killjoy moments in the beautiful game of football.
The game of football has also had its fair share of discriminatory occurrences, with the incident involving Luiz Suarez and Patrice Evra, being one of the most widely discussed issues of racial discrimination; which occurred in a Premier League match between Manchester United Vs Liverpool FC on 15th October 2011. According to reports, Luiz Suarez was said to have used the word “negro” in addressing Patrice Evra. The English FA in its report found Suarez guilty, fined him £40,000, and also banned him for eight games. The English FA found only Evra’s statement/evidence credible and it agreed that Suarez was guilty of using abusive language or insulting behavior towards Patrice Evra. The severity of the punishment in this instance portrayed the English FA’s stance, thereby sending a clear message that it was not ready to tolerate or condone any acts of racism or discrimination.
Again, the Spanish League match between Villareal and FC Barcelona on 28th April 2014 was another ugly incident of racial abuse between a fan identified as David Campaya and Dani Alves. The former had thrown a piece of banana at the Barcelona defender when he was about taking a corner kick. In a rather strange expression of maturity, Dani took the banana piece and ate them before taking the corner kick and the Spanish police authorities were later reported to have arrested the culprit who had been identified with the full cooperation of Villareal CF. Notwithstanding the cooperation level of Villareal CF, the club was also fined €12,000 (Twelve Thousand Euros), a gesture which rather suggests that the Spanish FA takes serious exception to acts of racism in football.
- X-raying the Possibilities in Coltescu Vs Webo Scenario.
As part of the continuous effort to kick out racial abuses in football, FIFA on the 25th of July, 2019 issued Circular No 1682 to her member associations urging them to introduce the Three-Step-Procedure in their domestic competitions, in a bid to pursue a zero-tolerance policy towards racist and discriminatory incidents, with a mandate to issue severe punishment to culprits. Based on Article 5 of the Laws of the Game, which stipulates the powers and duties of the referee, member associations were encouraged to adopt the Three-Step Procedure to their circumstances while reference for further guidance was made to FIFA Competitions Extranet- https://extranets.fifa.com/en/FIFACompetitions/fifa-preliminary-competitions/circulars/ and the FIFA Good Practice Guide on Diversity and Anti-Discrimination http://www.fifa.com/goodpracticeguide .
The referees in situations of racist incidents are now empowered to activate the steps as follows;
i. Stop the match (followed by a stadium announcement with the necessary explanation and request for the discriminatory incident to stop);
ii. Suspend the match by sending the players back to the changing room for an appropriate period of time (followed by a stadium announcement with the necessary explanation and request for the discriminatory incident to stop);
iii. Abandon the match (followed by a stadium announcement with the necessary explanation and request to leave the stadium, in accordance with the instructions of the security personnel).
Not wanting to be left behind, UEFA on the 15th October, 2019 also issued its own variation of the three-step-procedure which is similar to that of FIFA except for a few additions which is stated below;
In addition, the UEFA delegate responsible for the match will assist the referee, through the fourth official, in determining whether the racist behaviour has ceased. Any decision to abandon the match will only be taken after all other possible measures have been implemented and the impact of abandoning the match on the security of the players and public has been assessed. After the match, the case is referred to UEFA’s disciplinary authorities.
In time past, the common issues of racial abuses and discrimination were usually common as between fans vs player, player vs player, coach vs player, team officials vs player etc. It is less rampant to find scenarios where match officials who are expected to have been well trained and ingrained in the need to promote fair and equal treatment of other stakeholders within the football game, to be caught in the web of racial abuse and discrimination. In the light of the above instance, the incident between Coltescu and Webo, as earlier stated in paragraph 1 of this article calls for a re-examination of the possible applications of the laws and regulations.
Art 3 of UEFA Disciplinary Regulations 2020 states as follows;
- The following are subject to these regulations:
a. all member associations and their officials (i.e., all persons assigned by a member association to exercise a function);
b. all clubs and their officials (i.e., all persons assigned by a club to exercise a function);
c. all match officials;
d. all players;
e. all persons elected, ratified or assigned by UEFA to exercise a function.
- The above-mentioned entities and persons are subject to UEFA’s disciplinary powers. They are bound by UEFA’s Statutes, regulations, directives and decisions, as well as the Laws of the Game as issued by the International Football Association Board (IFAB).
In furtherance of the above, Article 14 of UEFA Disciplinary Regulations 2020, which deals with racism and other discriminatory conduct states as follows;
1) Any person under the scope of Article 3 who insults the human dignity of a person or group of persons on whatever grounds, including skin colour, race, religion, ethnic origin, gender or sexual orientation, incurs a suspension lasting at least ten matches or a specified period of time, or any other appropriate sanction.
2) If one or more of a member association or club’s supporters engage in the behaviour described in paragraph 1, the member association or club responsible is punished with a minimum of a partial stadium closure.
3) The following disciplinary measures apply in the event of recidivism:
a. a second offence is punished with one match played behind closed doors and a fine of €50,000;
b. any subsequent offence is punished with more than one match behind closed doors, a stadium closure, the forfeiting of a match, the deduction of points and/or disqualification from the competition.
4) If the circumstances of the case require it, the competent disciplinary body may impose additional disciplinary measures on the member association or club responsible, such as the playing of one or more matches behind closed doors, a stadium closure, the forfeiting of a match, the deduction of points and/or disqualification from the competition.
In similar fashion to Article 14 of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations, Article 13 (1) of the FIFA Disciplinary Code 2019 also defines what amounts to discriminatory acts, while reiterating the fact that persons found guilty shall be sanctioned with a suspension lasting at least ten matches or a specific period, or any other appropriate disciplinary measure. However, the fines prescribed in Article 13 (2) of FIFA Disciplinary Code 2019 differs from the provisions of Article 14 of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations.
Art 13 (2) of FIFA Disciplinary Code, 2019 states thus;
If one or more of an association’s or club’s supporters engage in the behaviour described in paragraph 1, the association or club responsible will be subject to the following disciplinary measures:
a) For a first offence, playing a match with a limited number of spectators and a fine of at least CHF 20,000 shall be imposed on the association or club concerned;
b) For reoffenders or if the circumstances of the case require it, disciplinary measures such as the implementation of a prevention plan, a fine, points deduction, playing one or more matches without spectators, a ban on playing in a particular stadium, the forfeiting of a match, expulsion from a competition or relegation to a lower division may be imposed on the association or club concerned.
Art 13 (3).
Individuals who have been the direct addressee of potential discriminatory behaviour may be invited by the respective judicial body to make an oral or written victim impact statement.
Art, 13 (4).
Unless there are exceptional circumstances, if a match is abandoned by the referee because of racist and/or discriminatory conduct, the match shall be declared forfeited.
Bearing in mind that the Coltescu Vs Webo case is still under investigation as at the time of writing this article, it is safe to agree that UEFA will either find the fourth official (Coltecu) innocent or find him guilty. If found to be innocent, it is naturally expected that none of the stated sanctions under the UEFA Regulations will apply to him. However, if there is evidence to support any act of racial abuse or discrimination, it is likely that Coltescu may incur a ban of at least ten (10) matches or possibly more, as suggested in the drafting of the UEFA Regulations. Notwithstanding the application of a ten (10) match ban, UEFA may also decide to add further appropriate sanctions as suggested by the wordings of the latter part of Article 14 of UEFA Regulations.
Compared to the UEFA Regulations, the FIFA Disciplinary Code 2019 is more expansive in its details as it provides specifically in Art 13 (3) that victims of discriminatory behaviour may be invited to make oral or written impact statement. In essence, a Pierre Webo in this scenario would most likely be invited to state the extent of the impact of the potential discriminatory statement, if at all there is evidence sustain such.
- FIFA and UEFA’s Efforts at Kicking Out Racism
Considering the global events in the world of sports, it is no longer practicable to pretend that the menace of racism does not exist in football, neither can it be said that efforts at eradicating the ugly trend has achieved its purpose yet. Like the legendary Oliver Twist, the fans of the beautiful game must continuously demand for more, till the virus that threatens the unity of the beautiful game is totally flushed out.
In an effort to combat the menace of racism, Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) entered into partnership with Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) Network in 2001. The following year, UEFA issued a ten-point action plan; setting out the basic areas of anti-racism incidents and recommended actions for tackling such racist actions in football. Amongst the key issues highlighted in the action plan is that, clubs should take disciplinary actions against players, making anti-racism stance a precondition to the sale of season tickets, removal of racist banners and graffiti from the stadium as a matter of urgency, adopting an equal opportunity stance in matters of employment etc. In 2003, UEFA with FARE Network in its maiden edition of Unite Against Racism Conference held in London, published a Good Practice Guide for tackling racism in European football. The objective of the Practice Guide is a compilation of the best examples of anti-racism activities from notable groups within and outside the game of football. The ultimate aim for enhancing and educating the wider football community in reaction to racist incidents.
The effort of FIFA on anti-racism also saw it release a “FIFA Good Practice Guide on Diversity and Anti-Discrimination” on 12th October, 2015. The aim of this guide is to serve as a template for helping member associations implement good policies and execute positive approaches that exist in global football from a range of options and available information regarding anti-discriminatory practices. The 94-page document, as part of the recommendations highlighted in the five (5) pillars, touches on diversity in football (treating people equally & fairly, recognizing their attributes and giving them equal opportunity) and eradication all forms of discrimination in football. Particularly Art 4 of FIFA Statutes, states thus;
Art 4 (1).
“Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, disability, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion”.
The Good Practice Guide in relation to the above also takes a strong stance against degradation and discriminatory attitudes; which includes verbal abuse, physical abuse and lack of equal rights. Specifically, the Guide states that discrimination can be intentional or unintentional, could involve far right individuals & groups and could be an act of using stereotypes and prejudice in a negative way. The Guide further gave a plethora of examples of discriminatory practices in football, while giving several recommendations.
Notwithstanding the above, it is clear that FIFA and UEFA have put laws and policies in place to tackle the menace of racism, but both bodies and other Football Associations around the world cannot rest on their oars as there is more to be done, if the virus called racism is to be fully eradicated from the beautiful game.
It is not in dispute that the game of football remains a unifying factor in today’s world, coupled with the impact of the various iconic figures of different nationalities that have graced the game to give joy to the world’s population over the years. This and many other factors are the reasons why the relevant bodies (such as FIFA & UEFA) need to ensure that constant attention is given to issues of racial abuse and discrimination in the game of football. The current and previous efforts are worthy of commendation but more needs to be done.
Going by the incident that happened in the match between PSG Vs Istanbul Basaksehir, it was observed that the UEFA Three-Step-Procedure was not applied on 8th December, 2020. Hence, the Coltescu v Webo incident shows that the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations never truly envisaged a scenario where referees as the ultimate umpires on the field of play, will be on the hot seat of alleged racial abuse of other persons. The drafting of the provisions of Article 13 (1) of FIFA Disciplinary Code 2019 and Article 14 (1) of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations 2020 which emphasizes a minimum of ten (10) match ban/suspension apparently focuses more on players and team officials because they stand to feel the effect of such ban more. The position of referees in the game of football is quite unique, thus, FIFA & UEFA need to consider a review of some of the provisions/articles in the Disciplinary Code and Disciplinary Regulations to effectively cater for the realities of incidents of racial abuse pertaining to referees. The existing Disciplinary Code and Disciplinary Regulations of both bodies as they stand are insufficient and should be amended to give more specific sanctions to referees. It is reasonably expected that sanctions which seek to revoke licenses to refer matches, including appropriate range of monetary fines will work to better effect. In as much as circumstances of abuse may differ on case-to-case basis, it is recommended that a range of licensing sanctions be stipulated in future amendments to the respective laws. This will definitely help in arriving decisions within shorter timelines in the adjudicatory process, and reinforce the positive desire to tackle incidents of racial abuse.
Furthermore, there is also a need to ensure that specific timelines are infused into the laws to cater for the investigation and eventual adjudication of incidents of racial abuse. It is not palatable that incidents of racial abuse/discrimination are subject to statements being issued on the need to investigate such incidents without a foreseeable timeline within which people can expect an outcome of such events.
It is also observed that Article 6 (2) (d) (e) of UEFA Disciplinary Regulations are vague in their approach in implementing disciplinary measures. Article 6 (2) states as follows;
The following disciplinary measures may be imposed on individuals:
(d) Suspension for a specified number of matches or for a specified or unspecified period;
(e) suspension from carrying out a function for a specified number of matches or for a specified or unspecified period.
In similar fashion, Article 6 (2) (a) & (b) of the FIFA Disciplinary Code 2019 also has vague implementation of disciplinary measures. It states thus;
- The following disciplinary measures may be imposed on natural persons only:
a) suspension for a specific number of matches or for a specific period;
b) ban from dressing rooms and/or the substitutes’ bench;
It is also the author’s view that many of the vague provisions in the respective laws, leave too much discretion in the hands of the adjudicatory body. Hence, it is recommended that a range of specific sanctions stipulating a minimum to maximum punishment (as contained in Art 6 (3) of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations) be inserted to the laws, so as to hasten the adjudicatory process/shorten the timelines in treating disciplinary issues.
Having considered these issues from various angles, it is safe to suggest that a review of some of the provisions of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations 2020 and FIFA Disciplinary Code 2019 will definitely provide more progressive solutions in tackling incidents of racial abuse, discrimination and other related matters.
- Bleacher Report “Luis Suarez Racism Verdict: What You Need to Know” written by Will Tidey and published on 21st December, 2011. https://bleacherreport.com/articles/992169-luiz-suarez-racism-verdict-what-you-need-to-know
- BBC Sports report on Dani Alves published 7th May, 2014.
- Sky Sports report published 9th December, 2020.
- FARE Network’s Guide for “Tackling Racism in Club Football -A Guide for Clubs”
- “FIFA Good Practice Guide on Diversity and Anti-Discrimination.
- September, 2020 Edition of the FIFA Statutes.
- Circular No 1682 on Three-Step Procedure issued on 25th July, 2019 to member nations.
- Empowering referees to act against racism: UEFA’s three-step procedure published on Tuesday 15 October 2019.- https://www.uefa.com/insideuefa/about-uefa/news/0256-0f8e70d1f5fd-c982ef234981-1000–empowering-referees-to-act-against-racism-uefa-s-three-step-pro/
- UEFA Disciplinary Regulations, 2020.
- FIFA Disciplinary Code, 2019.