After being faced with accusations of treating racism lightly for years, FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, is stepping up its fight against discrimination in the sport.
During the Confederations Cup, a tournament between continental champions that starts this weekend in Russia, referees will be able to stop and call off matches due to racist behavior from fans. FIFA will also deploy anti-discrimination observers to stadiums during the event. The observers will report back to FIFA on any racism-related events. Gianni Infantino, FIFA president, calls the changes “ground-breaking.”
Over the years, black players have suffered racial abuse at stadiums around the world and, in many cases, referees and soccer-governing bodies have been accused of not doing enough. In a recent instance, Sulley Muntari, a Ghanaian international, was on the end of racist jeers during a game in Italy’s top soccer league. Muntari, 32, walked off the pitch in protest after he asked the referee to stop the match in response to the abuse but was instead booked for dissent. Muntari told the BBC he expected more from the referee.
With referees often unable to do much, players have resorted to walking off the pitch in protest, but this tactic has been frowned upon by authorities. At Euro 2012, Europe’s biggest international soccer tournament, players were told they’d be booked for walking off the pitch in response to racial abuse.
FIFA’s decision to change tack ahead of the Confederations Cup in Russia is also likely linked to the country’s woeful track record in regard to racism at soccer games. CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg, two of Russia’s biggest soccer clubs, have been among the biggest culprits.
In 2014, CSKA Moscow was fined $55,000 after its fans racially abused Ivory Coast’s Yaya Toure during a UEFA Champions League match. In 2011, Zenit St. Petersburg was fined $8,000 by the Russian Football Union after one of their fans offered a banana to an opposition player. This followed a $58,000 fine in 2008, after Zenit fans threw bananas and directed monkey chants at opposition players in a UEFA Champions League match against French team, Marseille. In 2015, FIFA described the level of racism in Russian soccer as “completely unacceptable“.