The Rational Ref

Those who ignore racism are bad sports

HKFA misses an opportunity to show it has guts by not acting against disgusting behaviour at friendly against Philippines

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 June, 2013, 4:02pm

Picture this. As the visiting team's national anthem is played, a small but vocal minority of the home crowd expresses its discriminatory sentiments with whistling and hostile chanting.

During the match, the home fans continually jeer the opposition players, visiting supporters and officials. It gets worse when the home team are defeated and the fans intensify their racial abuse by pelting opposition players and supporters with whatever objects they have at hand.

Stronger sanctions must come from competition organisers and bodies like Fifa

These deplorable events occurred during the 2004 AFC Asian Cup when Japan defeated China 3-1 at the Workers' Stadium in Beijing. Eerily, they also describe what happened during last week's international friendly between Hong Kong and the Philippines at Mong Kok Stadium as the home team eventually lost 1-0.

When the SCMP reported the racial abuse, readers' comments in general expressed shock, outrage and condemnation. No one in their right mind can condone this vile, mean-spirited, anti-social behaviour.

Bizarrely, there are people who have sought to justify these actions. A supporters' club called The Power of Hong Kong said it was inevitable fans would have intense emotions after the deaths of seven Hong Kong tourists during a failed hijacking standoff in Manila in 2010.

The supporters' club also claimed Philippine players and supporters constantly provoked local fans.

"When the match was ongoing, many Philippine supporters, [wearing] the Philippine national team jersey and scarfs came towards the Hong Kong supporters' section to taunt them with jeers and hand gestures, which served only to provoke the situation further," the statement read. At the end of the match, several Philippine players also made provocative hand gestures towards the Hong Kong fans, it added.

As Rational Ref read this statement, thoughts of a devious player's tactic instantly came to mind. Referees observe this kind of shifty, sneaky and irresponsible behaviour all the time.

When a player is guilty of an unsporting action, such as making a bad tackle or spitting at an opponent, the player or his teammates will always try to deflect the referee's attention and focus on another incident where they allege an opponent has done something unsporting.

Experienced referees see right through this, just as any sensible person can see right through The Power of Hong Kong's agenda.

Using this misguided group's "logic", any injustice that befalls Hong Kong people will be seen as a slight to Hong Kong itself. Will this mean we can expect similar antagonism from fans towards visiting national teams from, say, Egypt, Indonesia and even China?

Earlier this year, nine Hong Kong tourists died in a hot air balloon mishap in Luxor. In 1998, hundreds of ethnic Chinese, many with Hong Kong roots, were killed and dozens were raped during mass riots in Indonesia.

And today, many mainland Chinese are persecuted and discriminated against for having the audacity to make a living in Hong Kong, apparently at the expense of locals.

If this is how some local fans perceive things, then education may not be enough to eradicate the scourge of racial discrimination.

Furthermore, those who choose to ignore what happened last week are just as guilty of condoning racism as the anti-Filipino bigots in the stadium.

Regrettably the Hong Kong Football Association, which so often sweeps things under the carpet, has given this impression by simply saying it is powerless to do anything without receiving an official complaint. This shows the sport's local guardian has no conscience and social responsibility to act in the interests of the game unless some other party complains.

Incidentally, the referee was from Thailand and assisted by local officials. Could he have helped temper the atmosphere? Was he aware of the disrespect heard during the national anthem? Was he sensitive to the provocative banners urging Hongkongers not to forget about the Manila hostage killings?

Referees have the authority to temporarily suspend or abandon matches if they believe the safety of players, team officials, match officials or supporters are at risk. In recent times, referees have become sensitive to provocative actions made either towards, or from, the crowd, especially with the world's media highlighting racism in soccer.

Last month, Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi temporarily stopped a Serie A match between AC Milan and Roma due to racist chanting by Roma supporters against Mario Balotelli. The organisers made use of the stadium's public address system to warn the hostile crowd. Despite this notable act, Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri said the referee's decision was not strong enough. "In my opinion, there's only one solution to racism in the stadium and that's suspend the match."

Referees like Rocchi do their best, but there's just no pleasing some people. Why criticise the referee for giving the crowd a warning?

Ideally, stronger sanctions must come from competition organisers, as well as governing bodies such as Fifa. Last month Fifa introduced tough new measures against racism. Teams can now be relegated or expelled from competitions for serious incidents of racism.

Also, any individual who commits a racist offence will be banned for a minimum of five matches.

Jeffrey Webb, head of Fifa's anti-racism taskforce, said the new measures were a defining moment in tackling racism. "Our football family is fully aware that what is reported in the media is actually less than one per cent of the incidents that happen around the world."

The new Fifa rulings standardise punishment across its members, meaning federations will lose the power to impose their own judgments. This means that had the HKFA acted on last week's racism incident, it would have had to defer to Fifa's judgment.

However, the conservative HKFA is not known for leading the way. In hesitating and turning a blind eye to racism, it appears the HKFA has escaped becoming the first member association in the world to experience the power of Fifa's new anti-racism measures. How convenient.