As monkey chants boomed around the Italian soccer stadium, Sulley Muntari became more incensed.
The Ghanaian player sought out the referee and asked for intervention to silence the fans hurling racist abuse. Referees have the power to stop games and have warning messages amplified at stadiums. Nothing like that happened, though, on Sunday during the Serie A game on the island of Sardinia.
Instead Muntari, exacerbated by the referee’s indifference, repeatedly pointed at his skin color.
The veteran Pescara midfielder’s protests were apparently ignored. It took further complaints from Muntari in the second half for the referee finally to act at Cagliari.
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But what happened next has enraged players and anti-discrimination campaigners. Far from being protected by the referee, Muntari was booked for dissent. Aghast, Muntari walked off and was booked again for leaving the field without following procedures — his two yellow cards amounting to a red, and ejection from the game.
Even when the incident was reviewed in the following days, Italian soccer authorities sided with Cagliari against Muntari. He was handed a one-match ban for receiving two yellow cards. Cagliari escaped punishment because Serie A’s disciplinary body said only 10 fans were to blame.
“Only a callous commission disciplinary would ignore the full picture of what went on here,” Piara Powar, executive director of the anti-discrimination Fare Network, told The Associated Press. “It’s set a very dangerous precedent. There are recurring incidents and the Italian football authorities are not dealing with them in the right way.”
FIFA offered “full solidarity with Muntari” but offered no comment on his treatment by Italian authorities.
“Any form of racism on or outside the field is totally unacceptable and has no place in football,” the Zurich-based governing body said.
Muntari’s case hasn’t been the only one in recent days. Inter Milan and Lazio were found guilty by Serie A’s disciplinary division after fans bellowed racist abuse during games. The punishment for both teams was having parts of their stadiums closed — but only if there is a repeat of the conduct.
For Powar, who advises UEFA on discrimination, these cases demonstrate a complete “failure of the regulatory processes.”
It’s not a problem confined to one or two countries.
“It’s endemic across Europe at the moment,” Powar said.
Derisory fines were typical in racism cases until a high-profile incident in 2013 spurred the authorities into action.
Just like last weekend, it saw a Ghanaian walking off an Italian soccer field that sparked change. On that occasion, the whole AC Milan team joined in the protest by Kevin-Prince Boateng. Within months, it resulted in sanctions being strengthened across global soccer.
FIFA insisted on a minimum five-game ban for racism by players, and UEFA doubled the entry-level punishment in a tougher approach.
For abuse by fans, a sliding scale of punishments was adopted. Parts of stadiums could be closed for the first offense and further racist abuse should ultimately result in fans being locked out completely. League officials also have the power to dock points or relegate teams for serious repeated incidents.
Administrators also face more rigorous scrutiny for discriminatory conduct. One of the earliest offenders after the new rules were adopted was the man campaigning to lead Italian soccer. Carlo Tavecchio was banned by UEFA for six months at the start of his Italian federation presidency in 2014 over a reference to bananas when discussing the presence of foreign players in Italy.
Corsica has also been the scene of racist crimes at soccer this season. On a visit by Nice to the French Mediterranean island in January, striker Mario Balotelli — the son of Ghanaian immigrants to Italy — endured monkey chants being bellowed at him by Bastia supporters. Bastia was given a suspended one-point deduction and forced to close part of its stadium for three games.
Scotland’s Glasgow derby last weekend saw a Rangers supporter make a monkey gesture at Scott Sinclair after the Celtic player scored. The fan was quickly identified and appeared in court.
England has also been the scene of high-profile cases this decade. Luis Suarez was banned for eight games in 2011 while playing for Liverpool, and Chelsea captain John Terry was suspended for four games the following year. Two lower-league players this season received the minimum five-game ban.
The disciplinary department at European soccer’s governing body has also been clamping down on racist chanting in continental fixtures. Serbia was warned in March by UEFA that its teams could be kicked out of European competitions for further infractions by fans. Croatia has also been targeted in the UEFA crackdown, along with teams from Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine.
The pressing concern is Russia, host of the 2018 World Cup where there have been persistent reports of discriminatory displays and chants. Former Chelsea midfielder Alexei Smertin was put in charge of investigating soccer racism in Russia in February despite previously declaring: “There’s no racism in Russia.”
Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports