GENEVA – When Kevin-Prince Boateng walked off the field to protest being racially abused by an opposing team’s fans a decade ago, he set soccer authorities on a path toward tougher sanctions in cases of discrimination.
His teammates at Italian club AC Milan had his back when Boateng, who is Black, refused to tolerate the abusive chants he heard from fans of a small provincial club during a mid-season exhibition game in 2013.
Boateng kicked the ball toward the opposing fans before striding back to the locker room, his teammates right behind him.
At FIFA headquarters in Zurich, then-president Sepp Blatter seized the moment to demand tougher punishments for clubs, national federations and their teams — or the players responsible — in cases of racism and discrimination.
Longer bans. Point deductions. Relegation or expulsion from competitions and tournaments.
FIFA created a racism task force and strengthened its disciplinary code within months of Boateng’s actions. So did European soccer governing body UEFA, whose 10-game minimum ban was twice that of FIFA’s.
Blatter, however, quickly stepped back from turning strong words into fully formed action.
Would the sporting sanctions hold up in court?
“This will lead to people coming to the stadium wanting to stop the game intentionally,” Blatter said, hinting that fans may use the rule for their own nefarious purposes.
Ten years after the Boateng incident, few of the toughest sanctions have been applied and racism is still a problem in stadiums.
FIFA quickly took the option in 2013 to impose a longer ban on players or officials for racist, discriminatory or offensive conduct.
Croatia defender Josip Šimunić missed the 2014 World Cup because of an incident minutes after his national team qualified for the tournament. Šimunić celebrated a victory over Iceland in Zagreb by leading fans in chants identified with the pro-Nazi Croatian regime during World War II.
Czech Republic defender Ondřej Kúdela missed the European Championship in 2021 because of a 10-match ban after racially abusing an opponent while playing for Slavia Prague in a Europa League game. The case relied heavily on the accuser’s word against the alleged abuser — making it a landmark decision.
Blatter’s initial insistence on point deductions, enforced relegation or disqualification for teams has not worked out on soccer’s escalating scale of sanctions, which starts with fines and partial stadium closures and rarely rises to harsher penalties.
The highest-profile deduction was the one point UEFA took from Croatia in a qualifying group for Euro 2016. It involved a swastika image embedded in the field ahead of a match against Italy, played in an empty stadium because of the racist conduct of Croatian fans at a previous game.
Some claimed it was a deliberate act of sabotage to embarrass the Croatian soccer federation. But UEFA held the federation responsible because it is charged with protecting the field of play from being vandalized.
Croatia still qualified for Euro 2016.
Despite a push for tougher sanctions for teams when fans racially abuse players, a 2003 ruling from the Court of Arbitration for Sport set a bar for proportionate punishments depending on the number of fans involved and the seriousness of the incident.
That case came about a year after France great Thierry Henry, who is Black and was playing for English club Arsenal, was targeted by PSV Eindhoven fans in the Netherlands during a Champions League match.
PSV later went to the arbitration body to challenge a fine of about 32,000 euros ($35,000). The court upheld the principle of holding clubs responsible for the conduct of fans, but cut the fine to less than 20,000 euros ($22,000).
The court said the abuse had been “isolated, of very limited scale and duration.”
That precedent from 20 years ago is still a factor in prosecutions today.
Both FIFA and UEFA closed investigations because of lack of evidence into alleged racial abuse of English youth players by opponents. The incidents occurred in the Under-17 World Cup final against Spain, and in a UEFA Youth League game between English team Liverpool and Russian club Spartak Moscow.
Cases also were dropped by UEFA after Black players said they heard racist abuse by opposing fans during games. Sweden forward Alexander Isak alerted the referee at a Euro 2020 qualifying game in Romania and Michy Batshuayi heard abuse aimed at him while playing for German club Borussia Dortmund against Italian team Atalanta in a Europa League game in 2018.
Batshuayi mocked UEFA in a Twitter post after the investigation was shut down weeks later. UEFA did not give a reason why.
PUNISHING THE ACCUSER
More than a decade after Boateng walked off the field, players who react to being racially abused can still feel they lack support.
In April, Inter Milan forward Romelu Lukaku’s silencing gesture toward Juventus fans who abused him in an Italian Cup game led to a second yellow card and being sent off the field. Lukaku’s one-game ban was eventually overturned by the Italian soccer federation.
At a Portuguese league game in 2020, Porto forward Moussa Marega had been racially abused by Vitoria fans who threw seats at him after he scored and pointed to his skin. When Marega, who was born in France but plays for Mali's national team, carried one of the seats above his head in defiance the referee gave him a yellow card.
He then tried to walk off as teammates physically kept him on the field.
In 2019, the players of French club Paris Saint-Germain and Turkish team Istanbul Basaksehir refused to continue their Champions League game after a referee referred to an assistant coach by the color of his skin.
The players on both teams believed official Sebastian Coltescu of Romania had racially insulted the Turkish club’s assistant coach, Pierre Webo, who is from Cameroon.
The match had to be finished the next day with a new set of referees — a sign of the growing power that players now have to influence what actions are taken in cases of racist abuse.
NEW FIFA RULES
This year, FIFA updated and amended its rules to help both sides in disciplinary cases.
The victims in cases of discrimination are now officially parties to a case “who enjoy all procedural rights,” including being able to appeal against verdicts.
Accused players and teams can get a reduced punishment if they work with FIFA on an education plan “to ensure action against discrimination and to prevent repeated incidents.”
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