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UEFA, Slavia Prague, and a Culture of Racism

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In the wake of the latest allegations of racism surrounding Slavia Prague, we look at the last allegation of racism and Slavia Prague.

Rangers v Slavia Praha - UEFA Europa League Round Of 16 Leg Two Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

I’m not going to claim I’m an expert on racism, capable of speaking as an authority on it or offering a final word. And I’m not going to claim that I’m an expert on Slavia Prague, either. But the last live football match I attended before lockdown was a Slavia home match, and I can’t say that the recent incident that saw Rangers’ Glen Kamara on the receiving end of alleged racist abuse came entirely as a surprise to me.

About the match, though, back in the winter of 2019. My wife, 8 months pregnant at the time, had a work conference in Prague. I tagged along, and we made a good last hurrah before the baby is born trip out of it. We met up with some friends, one of whom was a massive Slavia fan. He invited me out to the match. Did I want to go to a random Czech league match with a local supporter? Of course I did!

It was early December. It was freezing. Freezing. Still, it was a fun experience, seeing another club through the eyes of a local supporter. But there was one thing I was particularly keen to ask him about: the reported racial abuse of Inter Milan star Romelu Lukaku, which had occurred just a few days earlier.

His answer was telling in several ways.

He said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Are we racist? Yes. Were we chanting racist things to him? No. We have a chant against players who score against us, basically calling them an asshole in Czech.”

I’m not an expert on racism, but I am an expert in climate change. And I believe this can actually give a little bit of insight here, if I may digress for a moment.

If you ask a climate scientist if any one, singular extreme weather event was “caused by climate change,” the answer has to be some variation of “no.” No one storm, drought, heat wave, or cold snap can be blamed on climate change. But climate change both exacerbates the frequency and severity of extreme weather events overall. So the answer is actually “yes,” even though it might be difficult, if not impossible, to prove on a case-by-case basis.

In the same way, if a culture of racism and racial abuse exists within a club, these “one off” incidents are all but guaranteed. For the sake of argument, let’s say my friend was right when he said that Lukaku wasn’t called a racial slur in English or Czech by the fans in late November 2019. Were the chants especially loud, or especially directed at Lukaku because he was black, especially given the admission that the fan base was racist? It seems likely.

This is to say that when a culture of racism exists, it’s difficult to separate out exactly what is and is not an overt example of racism. If Lukaku feels personally and unfairly attacked, it’s not wrong for him to assume it’s because of his skin tone, because his skin tone almost certainly was in the minds of many in the stands and adding to their ire, anger, or upset concerning an opponent who had scored against them.

Is it loud and boisterous booing and chanting because it’s a European away? Or because of racism? Both can be true. Some, even many, might well be chanting no differently than they normally would, but many will likely be chanting with extra venom because of their racism, be it open or internalized.

Then, as now, the club were quick to go on attack, even going so far as to demand an apology from Lukaku. UEFA did not punish the club or the supporters for the incident in 2019, and that decision appears to have led to a more brazen attitude by Slavia, from top to bottom, now.

UEFA has to start taking these allegations more seriously. Punishing clubs after the fact for major incidents isn’t enough without the will to tackle the cultivation of a culture of racism that fuels them, a situation that can be seen at Slavia where this latest incident was an end point of an ongoing problem and clearly not the beginning.

And even then in extreme cases, more often than not we’ve only seen slaps on the wrists by European football’s governing body: small fines and very, very occasionally being forced to play behind closed doors for a few games, because remember when playing without fans was the worst thing imaginable?

There needs to be more. Suspending players, and even clubs, from European competition won’t directly diminish this culture of racism. But it would be a start, showing clubs that there are real consequences to allowing this sort of mindset to fester in the stands and on the training grounds. And the current approach of post-incident wrist-slaps and say no to racism banners clearly isn’t working.

Sadly, I don’t trust UEFA to make the correct call in this case, or the inevitable next time, or the time after that. And their actions, or lack thereof, speak to their true feelings about the problems of racism around Europe—that as long as they’re making their money, they aren’t especially bothered beyond that.