In 2016, FIFA disbanded its anti-racism task force, citing that its work was complete ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. FIFA wrote that the task force “completely fulfilled its temporary mission”, which was to develop concrete solutions to fight discrimination in football and strengthen FIFA’s approach to the issue.

Whilst FIFA declares that “both Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 will be World Cups where intolerance and bigotry will not be tolerated”, a task force member has stated that the “problem of racism in football remains a burning, very serious and topical one, which needs continuous attention”.

This article explores how football’s governing bodies have dealt with incidents of racial abuse in the past and what we can expect at this year’s World Cup in Russia.

Racial abuse in football

This season, Liverpool players have been subject to racial abuse during both fixtures against Spartak Moscow. After meeting in a UEFA Youth League contest in September, Spartak Moscow fans subjected Liverpool players to racist chants. In the later fixture between the two teams in December, Spartak Moscow’s youth team captain Leonid Mironov was charged with racist behaviour towards Rhian Brewster, who had to be restrained by teammates after the comment.

UEFA invoked Article 14(2) against Spartak Moscow for the earlier offence in September, which provides that:

“if one or more of a member association or club’s supporters engage in the behaviour described in paragraph 1, the member association or club responsible is punished with a minimum of a partial stadium closure”.

Leonid Mironov was charged by UEFA for the December incident under Article 14(1) of its Disciplinary Regulations, which provides:

“Any person… who insults the human dignity of a person or group of persons on whatever grounds, including skin colour, race, religion or ethnic origin, incurs a suspension lasting at least ten matches or a specified period of time, or any other appropriate sanction.”

Mironov has denied the charges and UEFA is yet to make a decision. Under Article 14(1), Mironov – if found guilty – will be subject to a minimum ban of ten matches.

Spartak Moscow had to partially close its stadium for a UEFA Youth League fixture after its fans engaged in racist chants. This amounted to closing 500 seats of the club’s academy stadium, which has a capacity of 2,700, in a subsequent home match in a UEFA competition.

It is arguable that players do not feel adequately protected by match officials or their governing bodies when responding to racial abuse. Jeremy Corbyn has urged England players to walk out during World Cup matches in Russia if subjected to racial abuse. This does not support the spirit of the World Cup but neither does racism, so FIFA must strike a balance in acting in the interests of the competition and the players competing.

FIFA Regulations against racial abuse

The World Cup falls within the jurisdiction of FIFA. FIFA’s Disciplinary Code covers instances of racial abuse by club, player and supporter. Article 58 is the primary mechanism to charge against racial abuse. Article 58(1) provides:

Anyone who offends the dignity of a person or group of persons through contemptuous, discriminatory, or denigratory words or actions concerning race, colour, language, religion or origin shall be suspended for at least five matches. Further a stadium ban and a fan of at least CHF 20,000 shall be imposed”

Article 58(2) accounts for the actions of supporters:

Supporters of a team [in] breach [of] paragraph 1 at a match, a fine of at least CHF 30,000 shall be imposed on the association or club concerned regardless of the question of culpable conduct or culpable oversight. Serious offences may be punished with additional sanctions, in particular an order to play a match behind closed doors, the forfeit of a match, a points deduction or disqualification from the competition”.

Article 57 also covers racial abuse, providing that:

“anyone who insults someone in any way, especially by using offensive gestures or language, or who violates the principles of fair play or whose behaviour is unsporting in any other way may be subject to sanctions in accordance with article 10 [warning, reprimand, fine or return of awards].”

Article 67(1) could also be invoked to cover supporters involved in racial abuse:

The home association or home club is liable for improper conduct among spectators… Improper conduct includes… uttering insulting words or sounds”. A corresponding provision applies to visiting teams in Article 67(2).

There are a number of protections in the FIFA Regulations to deter and punish racism. Racism is clearly prohibited and punishable by these separate provisions (de jure). However, whether these provisions are sufficient in actually protecting players from racism and adequately punishing guilty parties is another question (de facto).

Last December, Edwin Cardona was sanctioned for making a discriminatory gesture towards a South Korean player during a friendly between Colombia and South Korea. Under Article 58(1), FIFA imposed a five-match ban against Cardona, which included a stadium ban for those matches as well as a fine of CHF 20,000. Cardona has subsequently apologised for his behaviour and has not been involved in any incidents of racial abuse since. Indeed, this behaviour is unacceptable and football should prohibit this abuse without exception. It is promising that FIFA invoked Article 58(1) in its full force against an individual player and it shall be equipped with this tool for the World Cup in Russia.

FIFA’s use of Article 58(2) and Article 67(1) may be of greater relevance during the World Cup. After Germany’s World Cup Qualifier match against the Czech Republic last September, FIFA fined the German FA CHF 32,000 and issued a warning after travelling German fans chanted Nazi slogans.  In the same month, FIFA fined the Ukraine FA CHF 45,000 and issued a warning after Ukraine’s World Cup Qualifier match against Turkey where its fans engaged in discriminatory chants and had banners featuring discriminatory slogans.

FIFA is well equipped to tackle racial abuse by players and spectators. It is important that FIFA reflects the de jure prohibition of racism in its Regulations in practice. As history has taught us, de facto implementation is even more important.

This World Cup is a genuine opportunity for FIFA to demonstrate a zero-tolerance approach to racism in football. Direct, swift and authoritative action ought to be taken against offenders this summer and FIFA is more than equipped to do so.