Michel Platini, the UEFA President ever lurking in the shadows of global football, was seeking to pull his weight just prior to the opening fixture of Euro 2012, which is now underway in Poland and the Ukraine. The way he is doing so, notably on race, has produced a split.
The thorny subject of racial abuse is central to the current debate. Should players walk off when racially taunted by fans or even fellow players? Italy’s exuberant Mario Balotelli feels he has the answer: he would walk off the pitch in the event he was the target of racial abuse during the competition. ‘It’s unacceptable. If someone throws a banana at me in the street, I will go to jail, because I will kill him’ (Guardian, May 30). The issue is particularly pressing given that the tournament is bound feature abuse in various degrees. Polish and Ukrainian football fans can be rather noisy armchair theorists on race.
The Dutch football team, after visiting Auschwitz, received a fair complement of jeers from Polish fans. At a Thursday training session in front of an impressive 25,000 people in the stadium at Wroclaw, Gregory van der Wiel and midfielder Nigel De Jong were singled out with venom by spectators keen to impress them with their knowledge of simian sounds. Dutch captain Mark Van Bommel was suitably disgusted. ‘It is a real disgrace especially after getting back from Auschwitz that you are confronted with this’ (Time, Jun 8).
Platini’s response to Balotelli was a resoundingly cold one. Such a stance has little purchase with those who want to see a tournament with few hiccups. Stay on the pitch, or get booked by the referee. ‘It’s a yellow card. We’d certainly support the referee if he decided to stop the game. It’s not a player, Mr. Balotelli, who’s in charge of refereeing’ (Daily Star, Jun 7).
The reaction of the Dutch Football Association to the incident at Wroclaw was initially one of denial, and sets a deeply troubling precedent. ‘If you did hear it, and don’t want to heart it,’ challenged Van Bommel, ‘that is even worse.’
The stance has the makings of being a polarising one. Platini has received backing from former ex-England winger John Barnes who places the game before the protest. ‘I 100 percent back [Platini]. A player cannot arbitrarily decide he is receiving racial abuse and walk off.’ Barnes would know the bitter taste of the racial taunt – during matches for Watford and Liverpool he bore witness to bananas being cast on the field.
Footballers are not philosophers of the pitch, as much as some would like to be. Nor are they fully rounded ethicists about the human condition, which is not to say they are automatons either. Individuals like Balotelli earn huge sums to do what they do best, and should have a carapace of iron fillings. But the onus is on both the player to perform and the authorities to protect.
As Barnes put it, ‘It shouldn’t be a problem for me because I am there to play football.’ Leave it to the authorities – in this case the referee, lest mayhem descend upon the game. Arbitrary exercises in terms of whether racial abuse was experienced might see ‘five players walking off every game because of what they have decided’ (BBC, Jun 8).
Everything here is a matter of degree. The presence of neo-Nazis and dangerously obnoxious fans poses a fundamental problem at football stadia – and various groups have promised to turn out in force the moment they see the smorgasbord of ethnicities descend upon the various venues. That begs the question of what the authorities will actually do. In the event that they fail to control the fans, the players may simply hop into the breach. Such a scene may prove to be UEFA’s biggest nightmare.