I was privileged to be invited to attend the #EqualGame conference last week in London, organised jointly by UEFA, the English Football Association and the Fare network.
Also in attendance were general secretaries and presidents from a large majority of UEFA member associations – including Greg Clarke (English FA Chairman) and Aleksander Čeferin (UEFA President), both of whom gave strong keynote speeches – NGOs and experts – many of them part of the Fare network – a host of current and former players, coaches, referees and others from the Game, as well as journalists and reporters.
It was Čeferin that set the scene in his opening speech, giving a blunt testimony to the scale of the problem: “I am ashamed that in 2019 we have to organise a conference to combat discrimination and intolerance in football. We must dare to change. I am ashamed that here in Europe not a weekend goes by without a discriminatory act taking place in a football stadium, at amateur level or professional level.”
The starting point for all discussions was the acknowledgment that the issue originates in society, but that Football has a responsibility to address its manifestations in the Game thus contributing to the fight for equality and inclusion in general.
The conference had its highlights, among them a captivating production of Offside, by the Futures Theatre group; a keynote speech about what it means to be a woman in football by Honey Thalijeh; and an intro to sport and human Rights from Mary Harvey, CEO of the newly established Centre for Sport and Human Rights.
Voices from the pitch
The one that may have grabbed most people’s attention was the final panel discussion, entitled ‘Voices from the pitch’. It involved Roberto Martinez (Head coach of the Belgian FA), Bibiana Steinhaus (Referee from the German Bundesliga), Rachel Yankey (Head coach of the London Bees), Jason Roberts (Director of Development at CONCACAF) and Yaya Touré (a professional football player).
The panel was well moderated by Pedro Pinto (former sports anchor for CNN International and Chief of Press at UEFA). The conversation flowed and led to some good insights on personal incidents, observed challenges and recommendations on tackling discrimination, achieving greater diversity and working towards equality from those with first-hand experience of dealing with these issues in the Game.
Pinto opened the discussion by demonstrating that discrimination in the Game is still rife: Only the previous evening had Moise Kean – the 19-year-old Juventus player, born in Italy to Ivorian parents – been subjected to racist abuse from Cagliari fans in the stadium. After scoring his goal he responded to the abuse by standing still in front of the Cagliari fans, arms spread wide and palms upwards.
The commentator in video footage of Kean’s response posted on Twitter says, “It’s 2019 folks. 2019.” And that was one of the key messages that came through in this panel and the entire conference. As Jason Roberts, said, “It’s 2019 and we’re still having the same debate!”
The question is why? It feels like a similar panel would have said the same thing in 2009. Why has nothing changed?
The three-step procedure
One breakthrough that occurred in 2009 and led to a practical intervention was the introduction of UEFA’s three-step procedure, which FIFA also took up in its competitions, giving referees the power to abandon matches in the event of racist or discriminatory chanting inside a stadium:
- If there is racist or discriminatory chanting, the referee will pause the match and request an announcement over the tannoy asking for the chanting to stop.
- If it persists, the referee can suspend the match, request another announcement, then wait until the chanting stops.
- If it still does not cease, the referee can abandon the match.
Criticism and frustration
The major criticism raised against this procedure is that it is only as good as the officials who apply it. And, in the past, it’s often been the case that if the referee hasn’t heard the chanting or doesn’t act, it has been the players that have either informed the referee or expressed their frustration in other ways, as in the case of Kean.
And this frustration is quite understandable. As Jason Roberts eloquently put it, “why should players have to silently suffer this level of abuse? Imagine sitting behind your desk in an office and suddenly being racially abused. Rather than carry on as if nothing was happening, it is likely you would either get up and walk away or confront your abuser. This would be normal; no one should be racially abused as they carry out their job.”
The criticism that the three-step procedure places too much responsibility to those on the pitch is something that Roberto Martinez expressed very clearly during the panel: “It shouldn’t be the player or referee that makes the decision to leave the pitch. It should come at the institutional level.”
Greg Clarke of the English FA, in his keynote speech at the beginning of the conference, made three recommendations for concrete actions to be discussed at the conference. One of which was for improvements to be made to remove the burden on players reporting abuse. (His other two were that stewards must have better training and that the threshold for launching probes should be reduced.)
Clarke did not go as far as Martinez to call for responsibility to be shifted from the referee to the institutions behind the organisation of the competitions. He did say, however, that the UEFA threshold for a referee to take players off the field after racist abuse should be lowered. He said of the three-step procedure, “It was intended for mass chanting – racism of a ‘strong magnitude.’ That’s too high a threshold.”
A concrete suggestion
Coming back to the panel, it was Bibiana Steinhaus – the first woman to referee in German men’s professional football, in 2007 – who backed up Martinez’s recommendation to take the onus away from those on the pitch, with perhaps the most concrete suggestion towards a solution: Whenever there’s a dangerous storm approaching, and it’s too dangerous to continue playing, she’s given the instruction to stop the game through her ear piece. Why, she asked, can’t this medium be used in the case of racial abuse?
The question is what will be done, and will it work?
Will there be a legacy to this conference? Will the action points brought up by Greg Clarke be acted upon? There was a lot of energy, enthusiasm and common sense spoken at the #EqualGame conference. The responsibility now shifts to those in authoritative positions to respond to these discussions and lead the search for a better solution to avoid us hearing the same statement in ten years’ time:
“It’s 2029 and we’re still having the same debate.”