UEFA has become notorious, in recent years, for responding to racism in the crowd by levying fines that fall somewhere between pathetic and risible. Is there a more constructive way of addressing the problem?
After the brawl that followed England U21's win over Serbia on Tuesday night, it's probably fair to conclude that UEFA's current strategy for dealing such incidents -- small fines -- isn't really doing the job. It's always a dangerous business comparing the specific amounts of UEFA's fines for racism in the stands against fines for other misdemeanours -- football associations aren't the ones doing the chanting, after all, whereas Nicklas Bendtner probably puts on his own pants -- but nevertheless, as a strategy viewed in isolation, it doesn't exactly reek of efficacy.
However, addressing this by simply raising the amounts involved is problematic. First, it's not exactly clear what an acceptable amount would be. During Euro 2012, some Russian fans took exception to the colour of Czech right-back Theodor Gabre Selassie's skin. The Russian FA were fined £24,000 which, we all agreed, was pitiful. But how much wouldn't be pitiful? £240,000? £2.4m? £24m? Do we attempt to work out a scale involving duration, volume, severity, gross weight of bananas hurled, and so on?
Before we answer that, we need to look at what the fines are supposed to achieve. The idea, presumably, is that since football associations don't like being fined, they will attempt to prevent further incidents. Straightforward pain conditioning: first, a slap; second, if you don't want another slap, don't let it happen again. By this analogy, the current fines are, well, just that. A slap on the wrist, where what's required is something like a kick to the balls.
But then the problem with kicking a football association in the balls is that as it whimpers, sobs, and rolls around in a foetal ball on the ground, it's not just the racists that suffer. Everybody with any vested interest in football does too. Banning Serbia (say) from the next World Cup, or fining their FA into penury, would damage far more people than can be held responsible, even under the widest interpretation. It might inspire the football association to take swift action, but it might also, as Jonathan Wilson warned in the Guardian, inspire a "f**k-you isolationism" that would only exacerbate the problem. If you'll excuse a lurch across the lanes of the Violent Metaphor Highway, it's a blunderbuss, where a scalpel is needed.
If we can agree that the actual amount of any fine/length of any ban is less important than actually taking steps to keep football fans that incline towards the sinister and evil either quiet or at home, then the obvious solution seems to be this. First, for UEFA to set a swingeing, damaging, genuinely terrifying punishment, involving multiple bans, financial penalties, and whatever else seems appropriate. Then, when presenting this to the relevant football association, to say: this is what will happen if you don't take action.
Then it's up to the football association. If they do nothing -- or if they seek to blame the victim's "inappropriate, unsportsmanlike and vulgar" insistence on being black -- then all manner of horrible things happen to the game in their country, and they themselves are responsible. Being the Chief Executive that got your country thrown out of the World Cup isn't a good look. But if the national association act, then the wider picture of national football doesn't suffer at all, while those responsible have been dealt with.
Obviously, the nature of this action will vary in accordance with the offence: if it's a few fans, then banning orders plus arrests; if it's a player or two, then lengthy suspensions and fines; if it's a bigger problem, then scaled appropriately. If they can go back to UEFA in a month's time and say we've banned these people, or these people have been handed to the police, or this club have been made to play three games behind closed doors, or whatever, then there shouldn't be any need for a punishment at all.
The purpose of any action shouldn't be the raising of cash for UEFA, and nor should it be a significant gesture for a significant gesture's sake. Serbia, contrary to the headline in today's Sun, is not a NATION OF HATE; like all nations, even the ones that like to think they've kicked racism out of both sight and mind, it's a nation containing some hateful people. If - and that's a mighty big if - UEFA wants to, it can use its disciplinary powers to give Serbia an incentive to address the problems itself; this, hopefully, will see those responsible bearing the consequences in their entirety, while the decent majority get on with enjoying the game.