by Richard Brook
Amidst the reaction to the disgraceful scenes that followed England Under-21’s second leg European Championship qualifying play-off, on Tuesday, the principal question that has been asked is what will happen to Serbia? Whatever the Serbian FA may say, no-one who has seen footage of the match can be under any misapprehension. There most definitely was racist chanting from the Serbian fans and with equal certainty there were violent exchanges instigated by the Serbian players and officials. What will happen to Serbia however is a redundant question. Anyone with a passing interest in football knows what will happen to Serbia is they will get a slap on the wrists, and a derisory fine.
We saw it at Euro 2012 when Nicklas Bendtner was fined more for revealing sponsored underwear than were the countries whose fans displayed racist behaviour at the tournament. Last season I wrote about the same issue as Manchester City found themselves fined a greater amount for returning to the field late after half-time, than Porto whose fans racially abused Mario Ballotelli. Time and time again Uefa display an attitude that is almost as offensive as that of the racists themselves; namely that the protection of players from racial abuse, is lower in their priorities than protecting revenue streams. The question of what will happen to Serbia simply is not worth asking. The question that should be being asked is what will, or will not, be done as regards Danny Rose’s sending off?
The attention of the English people was directed at the sorry sight of a referee in Warsaw throwing a football around in the vain hope that it would defy the laws of physics, and bounce on a waterlogged pitch, in the torrential rain, despite the fact the roof apparently could not be closed and that the rain had neither ceased nor abated since he last performed this absurd ritual. Meanwhile in Serbia the England stars of tomorrow held their destiny in their own hands, rather than those of the weather Gods as they played out the second leg of their play-off tie.
The abuse began before even the game according to midfielder Rose, who is currently on loan from Tottenham at Sunderland. The player states that he first heard the “monkey chants” when the squad went out for the warm up. Rose states that he asked his team-mates if they heard the same, and they confirmed that they did. Coach Steve Wigley apparently advised Rose to get through it as best as he were able, and allow the incident to be dealt with through the appropriate channels after the game. Rose complains that he heard further monkey chanting in the first half while he was retrieving the ball for a throw in and that the chanting worsened during the second half with occurrences virtually every time he touched the ball. The player also reports being hit twice on the head, with stones, as part of the abuse he suffered during the game.
In a statement reminiscent of Porto’s assertion last season that the monkey chanting was in fact their supporters shouting “Hulk” repeatedly in reference to their striker, the Serbian FA issued the following denial: “(The) FA of Serbia absolutely refuses (sic) and denies that there were any occurrences of racism before and during the match”.
According to Rose, after the hour mark he was unable to concentrate on the match, such was the level of abuse he found himself coming under, and by his own assessment, the mistakes he made during that time could have cost England the game. As it was, Serbia found themselves entering the closing stages 1-0 down on aggregate, and England broke with Connor Wickham virtually walking the ball into the unguarded net with what proved to be the last kick of the game. Rose’s celebration was hardly under-stated and understandably fuelled by the emotion of all he had endured.
Serbia’s fans and also their players took exception to Rose’s reaction and began attacking anyone with the three lions emblazoned upon their attire. England players, substitutes, coaches and officials all found themselves at the heart of violent confrontations with Serbians who were unhappy at the result. There were missiles thrown from the stands, and punches and kicks thrown on the field, as the England team found themselves forced to defend each other from all sides.
As Rose wrestled away from a stream of Serbian players that held him and slapped him, he kicked the ball into the stand probably a minute and a half after the full-time whistle. After a being abused through the warm-up, through 90 minutes of football and being attacked at the end of the game, Rose took his understandable frustration out on the ball. It was not the most sensible reaction in the world, but there probably are not many people in the world whose judgement would remain unclouded after all that Rose had been through. In his wisdom the referee brandished a second yellow card of the night for Rose, and sent him off for kicking the ball away, long after the final whistle.
The Serbian FA went on to blame Danny Rose by name for the ensuing violence: “…while most of the English team players celebrated the score, their player number three, Danny Rose, behaved in inappropriate, unsportsmanlike and vulgar manner towards the supporters on the stands at the stadium in Krusevac, and for that he was shown a red card.”
The result of this red card is that Danny Rose will be suspended for the opening match of the European Championships, with no appeal as it was not a straight red card. It is this that concerns me, not for the reason of whether Rose is available or not but as a point of principle. There is of course an argument the other way that if we allow players to behave how they like with a get out of jail free card of “I was racially abused”, then we will end up with players performing Cantona-esque kung fu kicks week in week out and blaming it on racism. This is clearly undesirable.
That said it is deeply concerning that by sending Rose off, and banning him for a game football is letting the racists win. As a sport part of standing up to racist behaviour has to be not letting it affect the outcome of games. Rose is partly culpable here, as he gave the referee the ammunition to make the decision to produce the yellow, and inevitable subsequent red card. That said I cannot say, with any certainty, that I would not have done the same or worse if I were in his shoes, and under such extreme provocation.
The danger is that by sending players off, and banning players when the racists have got under their skin we only make racism more desirable to perpetrators of this offensive behaviour. The opportunity is there to directly affect the result through racially abusing opposing players. Abusive fans could increase their teams chances, by getting key opponents suspended for future matches, or by reducing the number of opposing players in the game at hand. What if Rose had snapped when he admits he lost focus, around the hour mark? We might instead be talking about the injustice of England Under-21’s not being at Israel 2013, as a result of the Serbian crowd’s abhorrent racist abuse.
Uefa have announced that both sides have been charged, England over the conduct of their players, and Serbia that of their players and supporters. Rose, PFA Chairman Clarke Carlisle and the Kick It Out campaign have all called for Serbia to face a ban for the racist behaviour during this match. This would seem a fitting punishment, especially in view of a similar incident when England Under-21’s played Serbia in 2007 at the European Championships. However suitable, it seems tragically inconceivable that such a sanction will be issued. It is unlikely enough that there will be a meaningful fine considering that for the 2007 incident it was a mere £16,000. Hopefully Uefa will astound us all and come down hard on Serbia, but it seems unimaginable after their long history of lesser punishments, and after having awarded the senior European Championships to countries with known problems regarding racism on the terraces. The FA, The Prime Minister, David Cameron, and The Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, have all called for tough sanctions to be placed on Serbia over this latest incident.
Uefa could however take a stand against racism by rescinding Danny Rose’s red card, and suspension, which was the result of a triviality in the first place. After all we have a professional footballer who turned up to do nothing more than to play football for his country. On the other hand we have a few thousand bigots who turned up to abuse a man for the colour of his skin. Who deserves to be punished? It is about time Uefa did something to stand up and tell the footballing world that racism is wrong and can never form an acceptable part of our sport or our society.