It was the most eagerly awaited of FIFA’s daily World Cup media briefings and the questions came thick and fast. Why, asked one highly respected news agency reporter, was FIFA preaching zero tolerance towards racism when zero action on the ground was in fact the reality?
It was a fair point but few, if anybody, expected the two distinguished members of the panel to provide such diametrically opposed responses.
Sometimes, quite fairly, certain agenda-driven sections of the media are accused of exaggeration, spin, call it what you will, when reporting FIFA matters. Not this time.
In the blue corner, CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb, FIFA vice-president and head of the organisation’s anti-discrimination Task Force.
In the red corner, Swiss lawyer Claudio Sulser who chairs FIFA’s disciplinary committee, the body that threw the book at Luis Suarez but has been otherwise conspicuous by its relative inactivity during the World Cup.
The two had been invited to discuss the World Cup quarter-finals as a platform for FIFA’s anti-racism message. Instead, sitting a few feet apart, they found themselves going head-to-head when explaining why no action had been taken hitherto against the guilty parties.
Whilst Webb didn’t mince his words, admitting his original action plan had fallen on deaf ears and all but accusing FIFA’s disciplinary mechanism of being too inflexible, Sulser was quick to defend his committee when challenged as why no action had been taken over foul chanting, Nazi slogans and the like.
Asked why throwing bananas or monkey chants were deemed less serious than biting an opponent, Sulser reasoned that the offending parties could not be sanctioned because the chanting was generalised and not directed at any specific individuals even though, in the case of the Mexicans, it was clear opposition goalkeepers were the targets. His body, he argued, couldn’t intervene just for the sake of it. “We try to adopt coherent behaviour [over sanctions] but that’s difficult,” said the under-fire Sulser. “We must know the specific case in order to be able to adopt specific sanctions. Racism is about ignorance but if we cannot identify those responsible, we cannot offer any sanctions. What else can we do?”
The inference was that safety in numbers was okay and Webb was having none of it. Clearly frustrated by Sulser’s adherence to the letter of the law, the Cayman Island football administrator interjected. “This is what we are trying to work on and should have been in place for this World Cup,” he said calmly but forcefully. “Whether [insulting chanting] is targeting one individual or the entire team it’s discrimination.”
It was pretty strong stuff and what was abundantly clear is that Webb has become increasingly frustrated by what he perceives as his wish for tangible progress not materialising. After all, at the FIFA Congress in May, FIFA President Sepp Blatter had himself talked of more stringent sanctions while repeating the ‘zero tolerance’ stance.
Whether or not he was disclosing more than he should have done, Webb was determined to get his message across. Asked why his body’s action plan for anti-discrimination officers to be in place in Brazil never happened, he replied: “As to the reason this was not put in place, unfortunately I couldn’t speak to that. We identified this as one of our top priorities. These would be people who can provide disciplinary committee with outlines as to what has taken place in the stadium. That is their sole purpose and their action during the game: to focus and provide views, opinions and reports on anti-discrimination activities.”
He went further, suggesting FIFA itself had fallen behind his own CONCACAF confederation, and others. “It is very unfortunate, what’s happened. We have employed such officers in CONCACAF, UEFA has been using FARE [Football Against Racism in Europe] for years and FIFA, hopefully at the next tournament, will be able to have them in place.”
Then came the coup de grace. Looking straight in front of him, Webb countered Sulser’s interpretation of the circumstances under which sanctions could, or should, be applied after several well-publicised examples of discrimination.
“It is obvious there is a disconnect between what we in the Task Force deem as racism and discrimination and what the Disciplinary Committee deems as racism and discrimination,” said Webb. “We should be doing a much better job.”
In one sense, it was refreshing to hear two highly influential figures speak their mind and provide an insight into the thinking that drives FIFA’s decision making.
The more likely perception, however, is that just when FIFA is trying to ensure its leading lights are singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to the game’s main priorities, here were two of them coming at the issue from very different standpoints.
Before the tournament began, FIFA were at pains to stress that because of Brazil’s cultural diversity, the World Cup would send out a strong signal of racial tolerance and integration. Yet instead of a coherent message, we now have an extremely confusing one…
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of the The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org