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  • Writer's pictureAditya Shankar

Legal Implications of Racism in Football

“Sports have the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sports can create hope, where there was once only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination. Sports is the game of lovers.”

− Nelson Mandela

A sport has a unique ability to unite diverse groups of people. At the same time, it can also lead to the exclusion of certain groups. It is a unique social activity which initially began as a form of leisure but has over-time gone on to be deeply linked with the nationality, culture, traditions and history of a particular place or group of people. The fan-following has grown to such an extent that often a person’s identity is closely associated with the sport they follow and support.

Football, which has gone on to become one of the most watched and played sport in the world, is representative of this inclusive behaviour that is exhibited by spectators predominantly. Furthermore, due to the rapid commercialization and growth of football, each football club has become associated with the culture and heritage of the place that they represent. This association even extends to the moral and ethical beliefs of the people. While this is good in uniting people from different social groups who share a similar ‘allegiance’ to the club, it may also take upon an aggressive form of fan-following or “hooliganism” wherein fans become akin to a cult and discriminate opposing teams and their players on the basis of race, colour, sexual-orientation, nationality etc. One of the off-shoots of this aggressive fan-following in football, is racism.

Racism has plagued European football as the sport governing organisations have failed to take stringent and effective measures against such racial conduct. Moreover, as instances of racism have increased not only among fans but sometimes amongst players as well, the value of the game has been tarnished by such malpractices. What was once considered as a means of uniting people has slowly transformed into a mechanism to further political beliefs of fringe elements of the society and discriminate people on the basis of their race. As a result of which it became imperative for international sporting bodies to integrate human rights with sport in order to maintain the esteemed image of sports.

Racism in football and its types

Racism is a form of discrimination which is based on the notion of a superiority of a certain race opposed to another. It is often manifested in the form of biased treatment, insults, racial slurs, discriminating banners and gestures. The reasons for racism in football originate from the simple notion of aggressive loyalty and allegiance to a football club or a country, which instils feelings of “us and them” among the people and therefore results in discrimination of those that don’t conform to the pre-dominant race and beliefs of the club or country.

The main kinds of racism prevalent across Europe in football are – on the basis of skin colour, anti-Semitism and Nazi slurs, islamophobia, discrimination against the Roma community and anti-Catholic movements. The most common and widespread is the racism against persons of dark skin. Several instances of racial slurs against players or clubs have forced players to enter into confrontations with fans and even amongst fans themselves, thereby leading to unnecessary violence which has tarnished the image of the sport.

Instances of racism in football

The following instances highlight the increasing racial discrimination in European football:

a. Luis Suarez – Patrice Evra case: This has been dubbed as the most famous and debatable case in the recent past which portrays the intricacies in handling racial abuse amongst players as it is largely based on ‘hear-say evidence’. In a premier league clash between Manchester United and Liverpool on the 15th of October 2011, Luis Suarez was accused of the use of racist words towards Manchester United left back Patrice Evra. Suarez reportedly called Evra a “Negro”. The interesting fact about this case was that Suarez claimed that the term was wholly acceptable in his country and was used as a term of endearment. Ultimately, Suarez was handed an eight-match ban and fined for his racial conduct.

b. Dani Alves Case: A banana was thrown from a fan of Villarreal on FC Barcelona right back Dani Alves during a game in La Liga in the 2013 / 2014 season, which is a common racial gesture used by fans. Dani Alves however didn’t react aggressively to it and mocked such a gesture by eating the banana and continuing with the game.

c. Kalidou Koulibaly Case: During a Serie A game between Napoli and Inter on the 26th of December 2018, Napoli Center Back Kalidou Koulibaly was the victim of racist chants of Inter Fans.

d. England – Bulgaria case (2019): In a tie between England and Bulgaria, England threatened to walk off the field due to constant racist chants from the Bulgarian fans against few of their players. The Bulgarian fans made Neo-Nazi gestures and monkey chants.

e. Ahmad Mendes Morreira case: Ahmad Mendes, was subjected to racial slurs during Excelsiors’ match against in Den Bosh in the Dutch league. Morreira claimed to be called a “negro and cotton picker” by the Den Bosh fans.

Necessity to formulate regulations to tackle racism in football

Apart from the increasing instances of racism in football, the need to assert and prohibit racial discrimination in football arose due to international developments in human right law, which is impliedly extended to the field of sports as sports is considered as a “social activity” or as a form of “leisure”. The Universal Declaration of Human rights, 1948 has formally recognised that human rights are universal and inalienable rights suggesting that the same has to be recognised in the field of sports as well. It is important to note that the Universal Declaration of Human rights, 1948 (UDHR) doesn’t formally recognise the prohibition of racial discrimination in the field of sports but has provided a general prohibition against any discrimination on the basis of “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Furthermore, the Charter of the United Nations, 1945 has formally recognised the goal of the United Nations to “reaffirm the faith in fundamental human rights” without any discrimination as to race, sex, language, or religion.

The formal basis of prohibition of racial discrimination has been laid down in the International Convention on the elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination, 1965. This Convention was in consequence to UN Charter and the UDHR which has proclaimed that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. In particular, Article 1 of the Convention defines “racial discrimination” in an open-ended manner to include any “distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” Albeit, sports have not been expressly included in this definition, it can be inferred to be included under “social” or “any other field of public life”. Therefore, this makes it obligatory for all the member nations of the Convention to prevent racial abuse in sports. As far as Europe and the UK are concerned, they have ratified this Convention and hence are obligated to recognise the same in their national legislations and are bound to it.

International law however is a ‘soft-law’ and lacks real effectivity unless specific mechanisms are laid down at a national level. Albeit, via international sanctions such as “naming and shaming”, “condemning other nations”, “cutting off trade relations” or even appealing before the International Court of Justice, sufficient action can be taken to enforce international law. With racism engulfing football and corrupting the integrity of the sport, the sporting organisations like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), and other national football associations such as the English FA realized the significance of integrating International Human right law in the field of sports.

Legal framework to tackle racism in football

The following is the prevalent legal framework laid down by FIFA and UEFA and is applicable to matches organised and sanctioned by them:

1. FIFA’s Good Practice Guide on diversity and anti-discrimination: In order to ensure efficient execution of the mechanisms to tackle racism, FIFA has authorized the national governing bodies to regulate discriminatory conduct of players and clubs within their jurisdictions. To guide the national governing bodies on promoting diversity and anti-discrimination, FIFA developed 5-Basic pillars. They include as follows:

a. Regulations – to prohibit discriminatory behavior,

b. Controls and sanctions – for the effective implementation of the regulations,

c. Education – to spread awareness of diversity and the need for inclusion,

d. Networking and co-operation, and

e. Communication and media releases to take a strict stance against discrimination.

2. FIFA’s Disciplinary Code (2023 edition) - FIFA’s Disciplinary code governs racial abuse by clubs, players or supporters. Specifically, Article 15 of the Code provides for the sanctions that a club/player or supporter are liable for in instances of racism. It has invoked vicarious liability on the club/association to ensure no such racial abuse takes place during a football game in which the club is playing and is host to.

3. UEFA’s Disciplinary Regulations (2022 edition) – UEFA formulated these regulations on the basis of FIFA’s Disciplinary Code and apply to every match organised by UEFA. Article 14 of UEFA’s Disciplinary Regulations governs what UEFA can do in instances of racism. The minimum punishment provided under Article 14 include a suspension of at least 10 matches, or a partial stadium closure. Just as the FIFA disciplinary code, the responsibility to ensure no racial discrimination is shifted on the club or the respective association. Apart from this, punishments may also include a points deduction, forfeiture of the match and disqualification from competitions.

4. UEFA’s three-step procedure (2009) - The UEFA has also devised a three-step procedure in 2009 to empower the referee to take appropriate action during the match in cases of racial abuse made by fans, players or staff of the club. It includes:

a. If the referee is intimated or becomes aware of any racist behaviour during a game, he has the discretion to temporarily stop the game. The referee will then request a public announcement to be made asking the spectators to stop their racist behaviour. In case it involves players or the staff of the club, a warning will be given to them.

b. If the racist behavior still continues after the restart of the game, the referee may suspend the match for a period of time. The teams will be requested to go to the dressing room until further notice. A second public announcement is made to stop the racist behaviour.

c. If repeated warnings do not succeed and the racist behaviour still continues, the referee can abandon the match. This is done only as a last resort and the referee will be assisted by the UEFA delegate responsible for the match and the fourth official as well as the players to determine whether the racist behaviour has ceased or not.

Following the abandonment of the match, the case is referred to the UEFA’s disciplinary authorities. The UEFA thus tries to resolve the matter during the game itself by providing provide sufficient warnings to the perpetrator to correct their behaviour before initiating disciplinary proceedings. It is important to note that both the FIFA disciplinary code and the UEFA Disciplinary regulations adopt a principle of strict liability when it comes to racial discrimination in a game. The quantum of punishment however varies on facts and circumstances of the case where intention may have a part to play.


It is the author’s opinion that the above legal norms are a step in the right direction but in reality, not effective in tackling racism in football. This is due to the fact that racism is deep-rooted in one’s social upbringing and development and the law by itself is not an appropriate mechanism to prohibit such ideologies from growing. Sanctions only enable it to be suppressed for a particular period but in order to change the mind-set of individuals, education plays a significant role. From a young age, including in youth sport, the coaches and administrative authorities must instil a system that promotes anti-discrimination and equity in sport. Early intervention at youth levels and timely education will prevent racial abuse at professional levels. Hence, the policies of FIFA must also be directed at the youth levels. Currently, regulation of the same is very limited, especially in developing countries. It is very difficult to identify cases of discrimination and abuse at youth levels unless a complaint is made and sufficient media attention is attributed to it. Therefore, mechanisms have to be put in place to identify and address cases of discrimination at early stages to avoid it happening at later stages.

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