Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League tie with İstanbul Başakşehir on Tuesday 8 December 2020 will go down in history, but not for Neymar’s hat-trick that sent the French side through to the last 16.
What immortalised the game was a racist incident which pushed the players, and perhaps the sport, to breaking point.
Fourth official Sebastian Colțescu was heard to have said: “The Black one over there. Go and check who he is. The black one over there, it’s not possible to act like that,” when directing the referee towards Basaksehir assistant manager Pierre Webó.
Basaksehir player Demba Ba called out Colțescu, backed up by teammates and staff who demanded an explanation. When they did not get one, both sets of players and staff walked off the pitch in protest.
Empty stadiums due to the COVID-19 pandemic may have led players of colour to expect a reprieve from the racist abuse suffered all-too-often at the hands of football crowds. However, the quiet of an empty Parc des Princes allowed microphones to capture every word of an incident made more concerning by the fact the man responsible was a UEFA official.
On Tuesday night, enough was enough. Protocols and punishments have evolved, but not nearly fast enough, and players are so often forced to take matters into their own hands.
Many questions now remain. Did the players do the right thing? How do UEFA respond? How significant was that moment in a seemingly unending fight against racism in football?
A brief history of slaps on the wrist
Going back ten years, both teams walking off the pitch in protest was almost unthinkable. At the time, such action would likely have been met with a lack of understanding and support.
Instead, repercussions were generally left to football’s governing bodies. If the punishments imposed are intended to reflect the severity of the offence in the eyes of those handing them down, then it’s no wonder players of colour have felt their concerns aren’t taken seriously.
In 2004, the Spanish FA were fined £45,000 after crowds in Madrid directed monkey chants towards England players Shaun Wright-Phillips and Ashley Cole. Meanwhile, Cameroon were fined almost twice as much for playing in unauthorised kit during the 2004 African Cup of Nations.
In 2012, the Serbian FA were fined £65,000 due to racist abuse from the crowd at an Under-21 game against England. Danny Rose kicked the ball into the crowd in protest, a reaction that was deemed worthy of a red card, and the Serbian FA publicly branded him ‘inappropriate, unsportsmanlike and vulgar’.
At the European Championships that summer, UEFA fined Croatia £60,000 for their fans’ abuse of Mario Balotelli, of whom more later. On the same day, Denmark’s Nicklas Bendtner was fined £80,000 for displaying a betting firm’s logo on his underwear.
The truth is, until recently, football’s governing bodies brandished little more than fines which would barely put a dent in a banker’s salary, let alone a national football association’s budget.
Points deductions and partial or full stadium closures have recently been introduced as combative methods, but they are not widespread. In fact, all too often we have seen no response at all.
Wilful denial and unenforced rules
2019 was a dark year for racism in Italian football. Moise Kean was abused by Cagliari fans, prompting him to celebrate in front of them after scoring for Juventus.
Rather than supporting Kean, his manager Massimiliano Allegri and senior teammate Leonardo Bonucci criticised him after the game, the latter saying the blame for the fans’ actions was 50/50.
A few months later, Romelu Lukaku suffered at the same ground. The clip where monkey chants can clearly be heard was widely circulated on social media, although the club denied all accusations.
An independent sports judging panel found Cagliari clear of any wrongdoing, while Inter Milan ultra group Curva Nord told Lukaku that the racist chants were a sign of respect.
In November, Balotelli kicked a ball into the crowd after receiving abuse against Hellas Verona. Balotelli threatened to walk off the pitch, although teammates pleaded with him to stay on. Serie A’s response to a third high profile racism incident in just seven months was to close Verona’s stadium, but only partially, and for only one game.
Despite their poor record, Italy provided the backdrop for another player walk-off in 2013.
Playing a pre-season friendly for AC Milan against fourth division Pro Patria, Kevin-Prince Boateng kicked the ball into the abusive crowd, ripped his shirt off and applauded all other sections of the stadium while walking off. His teammates joined him, and the crowd directed anger towards the racist chanters.
Boateng’s decision was praised by most, including then-Milan manager Allegri, who said: “I’m disappointed and saddened but I think it was the right decision not to return to the field out of respect for all other Black players.”
In the space of six years, Allegri went from praising Boateng for reacting in an inconsequential pre-season friendly, to criticising Kean for reacting in an important league game. Perhaps Allegri was only willing to call out racism when there was no risk attached.
Surely, if countries around Europe are at different stages of tackling racism in football, a universal protocol enforced by European football’s governing body UEFA should be introduced?
Shockingly, it was introduced 11 years ago. The UEFA three-step protocol has been in place since 2009 but has barely ever been enforced. The protocol reads as follows:
1. Stop the match while the stadium announcer reads out an anti-racism statement.
2. If the abuse persists, make another statement and send the players to the dressing room.
3. If the abuse still persists, abandon the match.
When England travelled to Bulgaria in 2019, the abuse from the crowd was so severe that it triggered stage two of the protocol. Two announcements were read out over the PA, but England made the collective decision to see out the game.
On that day, the referee opted not to escalate proceedings to step three, and the players opted to stay on the field. Both were staring into uncharted waters, but the incident showed that it was just a matter of time before someone took that leap of faith.
Thirteen months on in Paris, the most unlikely culprit left the three-step protocol redundant as the players immediately abandoned the match.
Where do we stand?
Howard Gayle, Liverpool’s first ever Black footballer, expressed his feelings towards players leaving the field in a 2019 article with The Guardian. According to Gayle, the resilience shown by Black players to play through the abuse over the past 40 years is noble, and they should not let the racists win by walking off.
However, the incident involving Boateng saw the majority of the crowd turning on his racist abusers, while Colțescu certainly did not ‘win’ when he defined Webó entirely by the colour of his skin in Paris.
Further on, Gayle said: “Are England going to walk off if they are 3-0 up with ten minutes left? Will they make a statement? Think about it.”
But PSG’s qualification for the knockout rounds of the Champions League was at stake, and they did make that statement by walking off the field in solidarity with their opposition.
Gayle has every right to take pride in the fact that he stared abuse in the face and played on despite it. But, ultimately, racism in football is alive and there is work still to be done.
On Tuesday 8 December 2020, two teams walked off the field in a high-profile game in disgust against racist abuse and solidarity with Pierre Webó. The mother duck has jumped into the pond, and all others can now follow without fear.
If we learn the right lessons, that night in Paris could mark the beginning of the end for small-scale responses to racism in football.