By Ahmad Jabr
A UEFA Champions League match between Paris Saint-Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir Tuesday night was interrupted when players of both teams walked out of the field in protest against a racist remark that the fourth official allegedly made against a member of the Turkish side’s coaching staff. The incident sparked outrage worldwide; the hashtag #notoracism quickly became the number one trending topic on Twitter following the incident on a night when European football giants Juventus and Barcelona were also playing a decisive match.
While this incident can be described as the latest episode of a racism problem that has plagued European football in recent years, what makes it even more outrageous this time is that unlike previous cases where racist comments were usually made by fans or players against opposing team members, the alleged racist remark on Tuesday was made by a referee that UEFA selected to officiate a high-profile match in the final round of the group stage of Europe’s biggest annual football competition.
The Romanian fourth official, Sebastian Coltescu, appeared to describe Basaksehir’s assistant coach Pierre Webo, a former Cameroon international player, as “black”. He can be heard saying in Romanian: “The black one over there. This is not possible. Go and identify him. That guy, the black one,” in reference to Webo. Basaksehir’s Senegalese forward Demba Ba, who was sitting on the bench, could later be heard remonstrating with the official in English, saying: “When you mention a white guy, you never say ‘this white guy’, you just say ‘this guy’, so why when you mention a black guy do you say ‘this black guy?'”
UEFA has promised a ‘thorough investigation’ into the matter, but it’s safe to say that the latest case has dealt a huge blow to its efforts not only to eliminate racism from the sport, but also to prove that they have been taking serious steps to fight this problem. Giving the referee the benefit of doubt would be illogical – it is impossible to assume he would not recognize that the term he uttered wouldn’t be taken as a major offense in today’s interconnected world.
It wasn’t too long ago when many athletes took a strong stand against racism, as Black Lives Matter protests flared around the world after the death of George Floyd during his arrest in Minneapolis in May. A football referee would have to be aware of that, as well as the negative connotations of his reckless choice of words.
But putting most of the blame on the referee would be wrong. UEFA follows strict standards when selecting the officiating teams for matches held under its umbrella. If the recent incident is any indication, it is proof that European football’s governing body needs to start by upgrading those standards to make sure its representatives have zero racist backgrounds, and also possess the basic understanding of what behavior and language are considered racially offensive in a hyper-globalized world.
Among the widespread criticism of the incident – from players, football analysts and fans alike, there were still some remarks that unfortunately tried to downplay the event, saying that the referee made an ‘honest mistake’. But what happened Tuesday night is bigger than just one incident. It brought into the spotlight an underlying racism problem that still causes severe injustices against minorities in Europe. Yet, there are many people – inside and outside Europe – who still don’t see the huge racism problem that the continent suffers from as a big issue. Therefore, it is necessary that UEFA takes strict action that matches the severity of this problem.
Otherwise, it would send a message that fighting racism is still not a priority; a message that will transcend the boundaries of sports. Sport has historically been a place that brought people together regardless of race, religion or any other social category. The most recent incident shows there is still a long way to go to make sure it remains that way. Let us hope that UEFA takes a step in the right direction.