Football

Slavia Prague Ban Highlights Glaring Issues With UEFA’s Anti-Racism Policy

Slavia Prague Ban Highlights Glaring Issues With UEFA’s Anti-Racism Policy

A few weeks ago, a Europa League game between Rangers and Slavia Prague came to a nasty end when Rangers player Glen Kamara was racially abused by Czech midfielder Ondrej Kudela. It was a horrific way for the night to end and, today, it was revealed that it has resulted in a 10-game ban for Kudela.

On first glance, you would more than likely think 10 games seems like an awfully short ban for something as vile as racist abuse. And then you realise that that includes a game’s suspension that he has already served. And then you realise that Kamara himself was also banned for three games. And, suddenly, the whole thing starts to look a bit nonsensical.

Racist abuse cannot be compared to any other kind of ban. Discriminatory abuse warrants a far greater sentence than a mistimed tackle, professional foul, or physical altercation on the pitch. It is the lowest of the low, and UEFA’s 10-game ban is arguably not even close to enough.

Kamara’s ban was for a physical altercation that happened after the game, away from the eyes of the TV cameras. Slavia Prague claimed in the aftermath of the game that Kamara had had “intention to harm” Kudela. So, admittedly, Kamara might have deserved the ban, if the "assault" (as it is being called) really was as bad as it has been made out to be.

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But the Czech club's talk in the aftermath of the game was entirely focused on Kamara - there has been no hint of remorse from the club or Kudela, as they fought back against accusations rather than giving Kamara the wholehearted apology he deserved. We cannot, though, act as though an apology or remorse would have been mitigating factors. Kudela has been found guilty of racially abusing another player in the middle of the game. Nothing mitigates this.

UEFA have been great at "talking the talk" in recent years. Countless pre-match anti-racism ads featuring some of Europe's greatest footballers. The pre-match fair-play ceremonies. The "No To Racism" armbands and stadium banners. These are all admirable gestures, but they do not get to the crux of the problem at hand.

It feels like every week we are reading new stories of footballers suffering vile abuse online in the aftermath of big games. Since the turn of the year alone, we've seen Sadio Mané, Anthony Martial, Axel Tuanzebe and, most recently, Irishman Callum Robinson assaulted with horrific racist messages in the hours after games. Football clubs in Britain are pushing back, with Rangers' week-long boycott of social media the highest profile stand against racism this year.

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But when the abuse happens on the pitch, there is a chance for UEFA (or the appropriate domestic authorities) to firmly stand against it and hand down harsh sanctions. A ban of several months immediately comes to mind as an appropriate sanction. If you look at the balance of things and see that Kamara - the player who was racially abused himself - has been handed a ban almost a third of the length of Kudela, something seems terribly wrong.

We've seen players given lengthy bans in the past for bad tackles, for red cards, for discrepancies off the pitch. Kieran Trippier was just this year banned for 12 matches for breaching betting guidelines - by telling his friend he would be moving to Spain to play for Atletico Madrid. Trippier's ban was two games longer than Kudela's for racist abuse on a pitch. Shocking.

Take another incident from the same game, for another example. Rangers player Kemar Roofe was (rightly) sent off for one of the worst collisions we've seen in recent years, as he caught the Slavia keeper in the head with a woefully high boot. No-one is disputing that it was a straight red, nor that it deserved a ban. But it was a collision, as two players went for the ball, with an extremely unfortunate ending. To give Roofe a four-game ban (longer than standard), almost half the length of Kudela's remaining suspension, speaks volumes of where UEFA's priorities lie.

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UEFA have spent years building their "No To Racism" marketing campaign. It has been paraded before every Champions League game, by players in the stadium and in adverts on TV. Here, UEFA were unfortunately handed an opportunity to show that they could stand behind their words and come down hard on anyone found guilty of racist abuse. A lengthy ban for Kudela would have sent a powerful message through European football that this cannot be tolerated any longer.

And they have, quite simply, bottled it. 10 games is a decent-sized ban, yes - but not for something like this. To stand behind their words, UEFA needed to come down hard on Kudela - and, as well, Slavia Prague, for their incendiary reaction to the incident. They have defended their player, while deflecting attention to the club's fans and to the actions of Kamara after the final whistle.

This is not solely a UEFA problem. We've seen it in other sports, with governing bodies failing to stand behind their leading lights in the face of racism. Colin Kaepernick was effectively exiled from the NFL for kneeling in protest against police brutality. F1 launched a formal investigation when Lewis Hamilton wore a t-shirt protesting the same issues last year. The NBA, until this year, advised players not to kneel during the Star Spangled Banner.

This is, sadly, not an isolated incident. UEFA did, however, have a major opportunity to prove that their "Zero Tolerance" policy is indeed Zero Tolerance. A six-month or longer ban might have done that. Heavy sanctions on his club might have done that. An extra nine games on top of his provisional suspension is, frankly, pathetic.

If football really is to move forward in the fight against racism, the authorities need to be stronger in dealing with incidents like this. We will get nowhere with sanctions like those handed out to Kudela. UEFA and those in charge have to do better, and it has to start now.

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Eoin Harrington

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