Jeffrey Webb knows it should be harder to find examples of racism in football
While in London to speak at an event marking 20 years of the trailblazing anti-discrimination group Kick It Out, yet another example of racism in football reared its ugly, pointless head.
The morning of our meeting in a London hotel, Mario Balotelli had been abused by a group of Italy fans at the team’s training base in Florence. That’s Mario Balotelli the Italian hero, scorer of both goals that took his team into the European Championship finals two years ago. Upsetting locals by being black-skinned.
A few hours later UEFA opened disciplinary proceedings against Paris St Germain for alleged racist behaviour in a Champions League match against Chelsea.
“This underlines the level of ignorance thats still exists,” said Webb on being informed of the news from Florence. “People need to be educated. Mario Balotelli is an outstanding player, world class and at the end of the day a human being. He should have the level of respect and dignity that every person in the world deserves. why not – the colour of skin?”
So the questions is, what, as head of FIFA’s anti-racism taskforce, can Jeffrey Webb do about this? What will he do about this? Not the first, and sadly unlikely to be the last, such incident to emerge from Italy?
When we spoke exactly a year ago Webb was fresh from his appointment as the anti-discrimination chief, the latest responsibility to go with his FIFA Vice-Presidency and CONCACAF Presidency. He talked tough, and I still believe he means it. Forcing through measures like points deductions is not going to be easy – but if you believe it’s the right path at least that’s a start.
And yet still the poisonous stream of racist incidents flows through European football particularly.
“The national associations need to improve – we’ve seen many instance of racism at club level. We need them to follow through. The only way we can eliminate racism is for each and every member of the football family stand up and be accounted for. Some of the sanctions in Spain and Italy have not been sanctions that we believe are necessarily showing zero tolerance.”
Straight-talking and highly respected, Webb can be forgiven for stretching the diplomacy in that last answer. Jet-lagged from the travel that comes with his many responsibilities. FIFA Vice-President, CONCACAF President, Under-20 World Cup chief and Chairman of FIFA anti-racism and discrimination Taskforce doesn’t come close to covering all of his roles.
“We need to clone him,” is whispered to me by the hard-working person in charge of his schedule.
But Webb shows his tough streak when asked about the most high profile of the recent incidents of racism in football. When Dani Alves of Barcelona picked up a banana thrown at him by a Villarreal fan and ate it. Making a mockery of the pathetic perpetrator and gaining him worldwide support, but not everyone’s idea of the right response.
“What Dani Alves did? I personally wouldn’t have done that. He wanted to be jovial and that’s great but we must also understand the significance of what it represented. For me it’s not a joke.”
The Alves incident gave me food for thought. As someone who has called for the harshest possible penalties for clubs – with racist fans – relegations not stadium closures and fines – I wonder what more Villarreal could actually do than identify the ‘fan’ and ban him for life. It really was his fault not theirs.
Moreover, this is a problem for Spain. Are Spanish people not ashamed of this? Do the people who gave us world and European champions not wince at this? Does it not cheapen their glories? Witness the red and white shirted Atletico fans making news with their monkey gestures when we should be celebrating their incredible season, their wonderful team? Do other Atletico fans not abhor these stains on their reputation?
Simply – is racism in football not actually football’s fault?
“The club (Villarreal) absolutely did what they should have done. They were very firm in banning the fan and sending a message to say its unacceptable”, says Webb.
It’s clear to me that Webb understands that while football clubs and owners need to take the right action, and should be punished for not doing so, the game is reflecting society. It’s not in a bubble.
It’s also important to note that Webb and others are not only dealing with racism, they are dealing with discrimination in various forms. Including sexism and homophobia.
Sexism has been a big talking point in the UK with the case of Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore and sexist comments in private emails on a work account that were leaked (sold) by a temporary worker to a national newspaper.
How sad such an important issue seemed to be used as an opportunity for point scoring, for people settling scores with the Premier League and for self-serving. Did the British Prime Minister really have to wade in? Is Scudamore a civil servant or serving minister? Just how accountable is he to anyone beyond the Premier League?
Anyone with half a brain will realise the reputational damage to him is considerable, and that no-one needs a Prime Minister (in a cabinet unlikely to be full of choirboys and GIRLS) to stick the boot in. I’d prefer him to be addressing sexism across all workplaces. Again, football is there to kick while others can indulge in their hypocrisy.
With regard to homophobia, before football congratulates itself of one or two EX-players ‘coming out’ we should consider the case of two British Olympic women’s hockey players being open about their relationship. In fact, their MARRIAGE. That’s team-mates. Married. Can you imagine two Premier League footballers feeling safe to admit to a same-sex relationship of any description?
Even if Jeffrey Webb had far less on his plate he still won’t be able to solve racist incidents in football overnight. FIFA can influence, can change, but it can’t solve world problems.
But he ‘gets it’. Fines? Stadium Closures? Don’t be absurd. It will take a long time to tackle racism in football and this man has precious little to spare. But don’t underestimate his ability to make a difference. He’s taking the fight in the right direction. His method may need to be a bit more subtle than Alves – it is to be hoped it is as effective and well supported.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport