NYT: How big is the problem of racism in European football?
It’s about as large as the problem of racism in Europe. Football mirrors society in quite a variety of ways. Of course, minority extremists may use football for their own propaganda purposes, and we’ve seen in some countries, in particular in the South and East of Europe, very marginal neo-Nazi or neo-fascist groups using football and football supporters as a means of conveying their messages in an organized fashion.
We have to distinguish between two types of behavior: One is organized and that has a purpose which is to campaign for a [group’s] extremist ideas by infiltrating supporters groups and sometimes getting hold of them by discouraging normal people from getting involved, even physically….
The second type is societal… places that are behind in awareness of the problem. That’s what we get in the Balkans and other parts of Eastern Europe. One person starts booing a black player and stupidly the whole stands start doing the same thing.
These are societies that are still traumatized by other events, like the war in the Balkans, and not aware of how other areas of Europe behave in the 21st century… We’re trying to fight both phenomena, but they both require different measures.
NYT: How do you address the types of problems differently in different parts of the continent?
Unfortunately we don’t have an arsenal of measures that can be tailored to the different problems we face. In Eastern Europe, mass education should be the way to handle one part of the problem and it should start in schools and so on. But we are in football and we don’t have the power to influence what’s being done in schools in those countries.
The organized extremists must be dealt with by the clubs. They know these people, they know they organize, and sometimes give them free tickets to access the grounds. We handles this by fining them and sometimes expelling them from competitions. We are taking a harder line with this. If they don’t deal with these groups, then they are going to have to pay the consequences.
NYT: But it seems to be more of a problem in Europe than South America, North America, certainly Africa. Why?
Well, Africa isn’t diverse. It’s a different issue. I know Brazil quite well. There is very much racial stratification in society. In stadiums it doesn’t express itself. It’s so deep rooted, so it’s not questioned. If you’re part of the elite you’re white, and if you’re not, you’re not white.
In Europe this has disappeared. In France we’ve had black national team players since the 1920s, way before Jackie Robinson in America….
We are dealing, when we deal with Spain or Italy or England ten years ago — it’s changed a lot — we’re dealing with extremist groups. It wouldn’t be the case in American soccer because it’s not popular enough. But in Italy if you show a Nazi banner at a soccer stadium, it will be seen by tens of millions of people on television.
FK Zeta supporters are known as “vukovi,” meaning wolves. Uefa is investigating accusations the fans in Montenegro made racist chants during a game with Rangers this week. (Risto Bozovic/Associated Press)
NYT: Is the problem mainly with players, teams, fans?
When you talk to players, and in particular minority players, they will give you very different answers. Some will say, ‘yes, there are still some problems, or when we play an Eastern European team, there are problems.’ In most places like France, Germany, England and Scotland, people would say today this would largely be solved. But no doubt in Eastern Europe you still get insults. We have sanctioned this very recently … I think this is increasingly extremely rare in England, France or Germany.
NYT: Would you say complaints are on the rise or declining?
We’ve been a lot more proactive in recent seasons. If you are more proactive, you’re bound to probably have more opportunities to intervene. We’ve been more busier than we were 10 to 15 years ago because maybe 10 to 15 years ago some behavior was considered normal or not worth dealing with.
We are dealing with more cases. But I would say in a number of countries the battle has been — should I say won — or at least no longer a big issue. In England, France and Germany it is nothing that can be compared to what the situation is today in other Eastern European countries… and the clubs have dealt with extremists in a much more efficient way.
NYT: In Eastern Europe, will it get worse before it gets better?
You could have this situation in Eastern Europe, but it is difficult to predict.
NYT: Will minority players not want to go play for clubs in Eastern Europe, or will clubs stop recruiting black players?
No, I don’t think that’s the case. The market is stronger that people thinking, ‘am I going to get problems.’ It was true in Italy a few years ago that teams with far-right-wing supporters would get in trouble with their supporters, but I think in recent years this has been overcome.
NYT: What has been the most effective way to combat racism in the sport?
In terms of racism and violence, taking measures against clubs that are not dealing with the extremist supporters, even kicking them out of competitions, has been very effective. Unfortunately we have had to resort to such measures.
Also, outrage in the general public has made a difference. Just because it has given a bad name to some clubs, and some of the leaders of these clubs have begun to think this is really bad… In the end, something has to be done to fight it because the club would be damaged in an almost permanent