The Rational Ref

Storming off the pitch won't stop racism

It is responsibility of Fifa, Uefa and the clubs to show 'zero tolerance' on abuse from stands, not match officials, or players

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2013, 11:58am

Is having a strop, stamping one's foot and storming off the pitch the solution to stopping racism? It is if you're Kevin-Prince Boateng, who was racially abused in a recent friendly match between his Serie A side AC Milan and fourth division team Pro Patria.

The German-born Ghanaian player controversially abandoned the match by angrily kicking the ball into the crowd and walking off the pitch with some of his teammates.

Had this been a competitive fixture, Boateng's action would have opened up a huge can of worms. It could yet happen since Boateng has stated he would not hesitate to walk out in protest against racial abuse no matter what level the game, even a Champions League match.

Boateng's supporters include AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi, Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand, and Manchester City's Vincent Kompany. Damiano Tommasi, head of the Italian players' union Assocalciatori, said: "It's a strong, important signal that finally sets a precedent. It's good that it comes from first-rate players, who are usually accused of being less sensitive or less willing to make a stand."

Contrary to Tommasi's claim, many "first-rate" millionaire players are overly sensitive and ever willing to throw a tantrum. Boateng complained to the match referee: "If it happens again, I'm not going to play anymore. The referee said, 'don't worry', but I said I do worry, it's not very nice."

Whether naughty or nice, Boateng's attitude - like that of many highly paid soccer superstars who behave selfishly when things do not go their way - is unprofessional, irresponsible and childish.

This time Fifa president Sepp Blatter is correct. Walking out is the wrong way to tackle racism. "Walk off? No. I don't think you can run away because then the team should have to forfeit the match," said Blatter quoting regulation. "This issue is a very touchy subject, but I repeat there is zero tolerance of racism in the stadium. The only solution is to be very harsh with the sanctions."

This is the solution to tackling all forms of vile abuse, including racism. Crucially, the definitions of "zero tolerance" and "very harsh" are key. However, for some people, "zero" means allowing leeway when it should mean zilch. Take for example Uefa's feeble sanctioning of Serbia for their racial abuse of England players last year in the 2013 U21 European Championships qualifiers. Serbia has a poor track record with racism, and yet still got off lightly. What is Uefa's definition of "zero tolerance", and what constitutes a "very harsh" sanction? The game's senior guardians have much to answer for.

Meanwhile, the game's junior guardians - the match referees - are the only ones who can decide whether to abandon a scheduled match. Advice may be sought from appropriate parties, but the ultimate decision lies with the match referee. A referee's obligation is to ensure the game proceeds in a safe, fair and sporting manner.

A referee already has enough on his plate with managing players on the pitch and disciplining coaches in the technical area, without having the additional pressure in dealing with outside troublemakers. Players, coaches, commentators and fans mistakenly believe it is the referee's responsibility to stop idiots in the crowd from hurling abuse, racial or otherwise. This responsibility falls to the game's senior guardians, the competition organiser and the clubs themselves.

Boateng complained to the referee believing he should have stopped the racial abuse from supporters. This is one example where players expect referees to be superhuman, and then all-too-easily criticise them for being Clark Kents. Other examples where players seem to think the referee can simply wave a magic wand to solve all their troubles are floodlights failing, dogs running on to the pitch, and the crossbar snapping in half. In such situations, "Rational Ref" has personally experienced players and coaches acting like spoilt children complaining just how unfair everything is to rob them of their playtime. Diddums!

Such adults need to grow up. They also need to show that racists chanting abuse cannot affect them. Just imagine the chaos and accusations of gamesmanship if players played the race card and walked off every week. It is not the solution.

In his reaction, Boateng displayed weakness and vulnerability because racists and anyone with a beef against him - even other players - will know they can easily unsettle him.

Let's take a moment to reflect. Players being abused by crowds are mollycoddled and allowed to lose their tempers, but when match officials are similarly abused with vile personal chants it is deemed acceptable and "part and parcel of the game". Referees are expected to be professional, thick-skinned and superhuman whereas "first-rate" professional players are permitted to be fragile, overly sensitive, spoilt brats threatening to have tantrums whenever they feel like it. Who are the true role models?