Racism in football once again reared its head this weekend amid ugly scenes in Italy as two AC Milan players had bananas thrown at them during Milan's 2-1 Serie A defeat at Atalanta.
Guinea's Kevin Constant and Dutch international Nigel de Jong (formerly of Manchester City) were the targets of home fans, picking up bananas thrown onto the pitch as Milan players, including Philippe Mexes, applauded sarcastically in response. The home support were warned that any repeat offenses would lead to the match being suspended.
Atalanta manager Stefano Colantuono condemned the supporters responsible and suggested to Gazzetta dello Sport: "Whoever threw the banana on the pitch deserves to have a coconut thrown back at them."
Milan head coach Clarence Seedorf urged the authorities to “find the culprit and do what they have to do”.
Italian football has a long history of racist abuse in its football grounds, despite efforts to tackle it. Last July Constant was abused by Sassuolo fans during a pre-season friendly match, resulting in the midfielder kicking the ball into the crowd and walking off the field. In January 2013 another Milan player, Ghana midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, led a walkout by players in a friendly match with fourth tier Pro Patria after racial chanting from supporters.
This latest incident follows just weeks after Villarreal were fined £9,850 (12,000 euros) after supporters threw bananas at Brazil international Dani Alves in a La Liga match against Barcelona. Alves' impromptu response of taking a bite of the banana sparked worldwide applause and instigated a peculiar online meme where many leading footballers posted photographs of themselves on social media eating bananas in support of the Barcelona player.
For football authorities this latest incident in one of Europe's major leagues will provide a further headache in the ongoing fight against racism. No doubt sanctions in the form of financial penalties will be imposed, but there will doubtless be concerns that there is more that can be done to tackle this scourge that continues to plague football even at the highest level.
Rather than issuing meaningless, and to be frank desultory, fines to clubs whose supporters are guilty of racial abuse, tougher action needs to be taken. Of course it didn't help when the most powerful football bureaucrat in Europe, UEFA president Michel Platini, warned players ahead of Euro 2012 that any who walked off the pitch because of racist abuse would be booked. The message from the authorities is clear: racism is not an important enough issue for them to take strong enough action.
It's time for bodies like FIFA and UEFA to take a stronger stance against clubs and national associations who are found guilty of not doing enough to stamp out racist abuse. Whether it be in the form of points deductions by national associations, withdrawal of Champions League places, or even disqualification from major tournaments for the national teams of countries where there is repeated and sustained racism in football.
UEFA is now taking stronger action against clubs who neglect their commitments and responsibilities under Financial Fair Play, but the continued presence of racism inside football grounds is a much greater poison to the welfare and image of football around the globe.
Futile fines are no longer enough; only through suspensions and disqualifications from the game's elite competitions will we ever see national associations and clubs take powerful, meaningful and lasting action against this offence.
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