Soccer faces wave of racial and offensive abuse incidents amid FIFA pledge to stop games

Two international soccer games stopped because of racial abuse between players. A United States-Mexico game cut short amid homophobic chants by fans. An advisor to Brazil player Vinícius Júnior racially harassed by a steward at a stadium in Spain.

All these incidents in the past week are evidence of an “urgent crisis” facing soccer, an anti-discrimination group that works with FIFA and European soccer body UEFA said Tuesday.

The two men’s games abandoned Monday — when New Zealand and the Ireland under-21 team refused to continue playing after hearing racial abuse by opponents from Qatar and Kuwait, respectively — followed days after FIFA president Gianni Infantino reset soccer’s task to tackle discrimination.

“There is no football if there is racism! So let’s stop the games,” Infantino said last Friday after meeting with Vinícius in Barcelona and enlisting him to work with FIFA and other players.

Vinícius, who is Black, has been the target of sustained racist abuse by fans in Spanish stadiums throughout the season while playing for Real Madrid, with little done by referees or soccer organizers to protect him.

The New Zealand and Ireland soccer federations did not cite Infantino’s pledge when they explained Monday why their teams would not continue the exhibition games, both played in Austria.

Still, the message was clear to FIFA’s long-time advisors on discrimination at international soccer games, the London-based Fare network.

“Two international matches abandoned due to racial abuse in one evening tells us something about the way in which in young players are no longer prepared to tolerate racism on the pitch,” Fare executive director Piara Powar said Tuesday in a statement.

“On top of the behavior of a Spanish steward who racially abused a friend of Vinícius Júnior by wielding a banana at a match in which the Brazilian team took the knee, and the USA vs. Mexico match that last week was stopped twice and cut short by the referee due to homophobia, we can see the urgent crisis football is facing.” FIFA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Zurich-based body has jurisdiction over international friendlies between teams from different continental confederations such as the New Zealand-Qatar and Ireland-Kuwait games.

New Zealand abandoned the game at halftime after accusing Qatari player Yusuf Abdurisag of making a racist comment to defender Michael Boxall, who is of Samoan heritage.

After a melee between the teams in the 40th minute, New Zealand captain Joe Bell complained to referee Manuel Schuttengruber, who shook his head, indicating he would not take action against the Qatar player.

In a statement, Football New Zealand said it supported the players who refused to play the second half when the referee declined to take action.

“We never want to see a match abandoned but some issues are bigger than football and it is important to make a stand,” New Zealand Football CEO Andrew Pragnell said in a statement.

Qatar coach Carlos Queiroz said on the television broadcast of the match both sets of players supported their own teammate.

“The referee did not listen (to what was said). It’s just an argument between two players. They decided to abandon the game with no witnesses,” the former Portugal and Real Madrid coach said.

In European soccer, disciplinary cases after alleged racial abuse between players have been dropped because of a lack of witnesses.

“It’s a new chapter in football which is, for sure, something nobody can understand,” Queiroz said Monday. “This game will be under observation from FIFA, for sure.” The Irish soccer federation said its under-21 team’s game against the Kuwait Olympic team was stopped “after a racist remark was made by a Kuwaiti player towards one of our substitutes.” “The (federation) does not tolerate any racism towards any of our players or staff and will be reporting this serious matter to FIFA and UEFA,” the Irish soccer body said on its Twitter account.

Last Friday, Infantino committed FIFA to create a task force involving players that aims to “elaborate concrete and efficient measures to end racism in football once and for all.” “It’s a football-related problem and we mustn’t look for excuses like: It’s society’s problem, therefore, it’s fine in football.’ In the world of football, we must act in a very forceful way,” he said.

Racial abuse of players has been present in soccer for decades, and it has been 10 years since a notorious incident in Italy. Racial abuse aimed by fans at AC Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng led him to walk off the field during a friendly game. His teammates followed.

Then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter urged competition organizers worldwide to impose stronger sanctions but few have followed through.
Powar said one positive after Monday’s games was that the federations quickly and fully supported their players.

“It may be the start of a new awareness by national associations of the need to play their part to tackle discrimination,” he said.

The Qatar soccer federation posted a statement on Twitter stating just that New Zealand had withdrawn from the game which was part of its preparations for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Qatar was invited to that tournament, which starts next week in the United States and Canada.

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