Would you take your child to a match at Euro 2012?
I’m not sure I would even take myself.
Less than two weeks into UEFA’s Euro 2012 soccer tournament, a total of seven of the sixteen participating countries already face some kind of disciplinary penalties, mostly due to aggressive, violent fan behavior. UEFA has taken shockingly misguided and inadequate steps to stamp out the violence and racism, fining each country’s soccer federation small sums of money when their fans have thrown items onto the field, attempted to run onto the field, or chanted racial slurs at players. Since the punishments have nothing to do with the fans, they have predictably had little impact on fan behavior. Instead of continuing to issue slaps on the wrist that have no hope of curtailing such behavior, UEFA should show that they actually care about eliminating violence and racism at their events by instituting harsher penalties that impact fans and have a hope of deterring offenders.
The highest profile incidents thus far have involved Russian fans. During their team’s first match, against the Czech Republic, they set off and threw fireworks within the stadium, beat stadium staff badly enough to land four people in the hospital, and chanted monkey noises in the direction of the Czech Republic’s only black player. Since UEFA’s rules hold each country’s soccer federation responsible for their fans’ behavior, UEFA fined the Russian federation a whopping $150,000, a pittance compared to the $13.3 million that the federation earned for participating in the tournament. UEFA also placed Russia on a nearly four year probationary period during which further offenses would supposedly impose penalties that would make it more difficult for Russia to qualify for Euro 2016.
Despite these penalties, Russian fans lit and threw fireworks on the field during Russia’s next match, and one fan ran onto the field after the game. UEFA somehow decided that a repeat offense justified less severe penalties, fining the Russian federation only an additional $38,000 and deciding that these latest incidents did not violate Russia’s probation.
Russian fans are not the only offenders. Hundreds of Croatian fans directed monkey chants at a black Italian player, and one even threw a banana onto the field, leading UEFA to fine the Croatian federation about $100,000. UEFA fined the German federation about $13,000 after their fans set off a smoke bomb in the stands and threw several large paper balls at opposing players during their first game. German fans set off fireworks and continued throwing paper balls onto the field during their two subsequent matches, and engaged in what UEFA has called “inappropriate chanting” while displaying “inappropriate banners and symbols,” including at least one neo-Nazi banner. English fans have also gotten into the mix, with several attempting to run onto the field after one of their games.
UEFA’s failure to deal effectively with these threats is particularly inexcusable considering the consequences of similarly unruly incidents in recent years. Less than five months ago, 73 died and over 1,000 were injured when fans stormed the field after a soccer match in Egypt. Tennis star Monica Seles was brutally stabbed by a fan who ran onto the court in 1993, and former AC Milan keeper Dida was struck by an incendiary device thrown from the crowd in 2005. Yet UEFA still thinks that safety is best served with minuscule fines levied against organizations that are not the problem, and have little ability to stimulate changes in fan behavior.
It’s no mystery why UEFA’s disciplinary penalties are doing little to discourage fan aggression and violence—fans have no incentive to alter their behavior when all that’s at stake is someone else’s money. No one wants to punish many for the sins of the few. But there is little doubt that more stringent policies would improve the current atmosphere of violence and aggression, and allow the same competition to take place in a more peaceful and dignified way. UEFA’s current disciplinary policies are so misguided and so lenient, it’s reasonable to ask—does UEFA care about this at all?
For years, UEFA has occasionally threatened to eject offending fans, empty part or all of stadiums during matches, or suspend matches when fans step out of line. Instead of continuing to repeat these empty threats, as UEFA has during the tournament, UEFA should actually use any of these measures to deal with the threat head on, deter future misbehavior, and show that they actually care about cultivating at atmosphere of peace and civility in European soccer.