In 2019, racist abuse during football matches has been headline news domestically, and sadly, these incidents have not been isolated nor are they confined to club fixtures. Earlier this year, England’s Euro 2020 campaign was marred by racial abuse with several players being targeted during the Three Lion’s away win at Montenegro. England’s Euro qualifier in Sofia on Monday is set to be played to a reduced crowd after Bulgarian fans were found guilty of racist behaviour during matches against Kosovo and the Czech Republic. Ahead of the fixture, we talked to former England U19’s captain Fabrice Muamba to find out how this type of sanction might affect players, and what kind of message this sends about racism in football.
Hi Fabrice, when did you play behind closed doors?
In 2006 when I was 19, The England U21 team played behind closed doors because of the abuse we had received. There had been heavy name-calling towards a few of the black players on the team. It was shocking because we had never seen or heard anything like that before. To see people behaving that way was very disappointing, so I was happy that the decision was made for our next match to be played behind closed doors.
What was it like playing in an empty stadium?
It was weird in a way, but we went there and got our job done. To see only police and stewards in the stands was a bit of a culture shock. We had never played in front of an empty stadium before, but I think sanctions should be more severe now. Playing matches behind closed doors is one thing. If we can take it as far as point deductions, it will send an even stronger message to the national associations that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable.
Do sanctions like this work to help combat racist fan behaviour?
Playing to reduced crowds is more effective because in my opinion the level of fines applied previously, don’t have strong enough impact. You must take a firm line when fans abuse players, and that includes the potential use of sanctions such as point deductions and playing behind closed doors. These will have a financial impact as well as affecting the atmosphere and sending a visible message that racism will not be tolerated.
What can the teams expect when they play to a reduced crowd in Bulgaria?
The home team will see an empty section in the stand which can be deflating and make a massive difference. Everyone plays better with their fans behind them. It will be more difficult for them, but I’m sure they’ll be able to get their heads around it. For the away team – in this case England - it’s an opportunity to showcase their talent and show how well they have coped with what's been thrown at them. The reduced crowds will affect their performance to some extent too, but if they win, that will send a powerful message.
What else do you think needs to be done to combat racism in football?
Personally, I believe in lifetime bans for racist fans because it’s just not acceptable for any player to face racist abuse. We live in a multicultural society and fans that racially target players need to educate themselves and show respect for players of colour. Ultimately for the fans, it doesn’t make sense to engage in racist abuse because they’re disrupting games for the clubs they support. They will also miss out on attending games. Football is a game of passion, but people get carried away. Fans need to learn how to control their emotions regardless of a win or loss and understand it's never okay to racially abuse players.
Governing bodies and national associations globally have to do more around these issues, but it starts with education. Learning about other cultures is essential. Clubs should take time to educate their fans and players about racism and discrimination, and maybe then we can start to have a different outcome on the football pitch.