soccer field

FIFA adopts a harsher approach to combating racism in football

August 21, 2019

Earlier this year, Danny Rose, an England international, publicly stated that “he can’t wait to see the back of football” due to the repeated instances of racist abuse he has been subject to throughout his career, including when representing England. During the opening weekend of matches in the English Football League, Kick It Out, an equality and inclusion organisation focused on English football, reported four alleged incidents of racist abuse towards players or their families inside a stadium.

Even more recently, Queens Park Rangers’ Under 18s were allegedly subjected to racist abuse in a pre-season game against AD Nervion FC during a pre-season tour of Spain. In line with the protocol agreed with Kick It Out, the team’s manager instructed the team to leave the field and the match was abandoned.

Both Kick It Out and a number of professional footballers have now publicly questioned how the footballing authorities are tackling the issue of racism in football and FIFA have now responded in the 2019 Edition of the FIFA Disciplinary Code (the 2019 Code) which came into effect on July 15, 2019.

What was FIFA’s approach previously?   

In the 2017 Edition of the FIFA Disciplinary Code (the 2017 Code), which has now been replaced by the 2019 Code, Article 58 set out the sanctions to be imposed for discriminatory behavior. For any individual who engages in “contemptuous, discriminatory or denigratory words or actions concerning race, color, language, religion or origin”, they are subject to:

  1. A ban of at least 5 matches;
  2. A stadium ban; and
  3. A fine of at least CHF 20,000 (CHF 30,000 if the individual is a club or national association official).

Under the 2017 Code, clubs or associations would be held liable for the actions of their supporters or members, with fines of at least CHF 30,000 to be imposed. For the more serious offences, Article 58.2(b) permitted additional sanctions, such as playing a match behind closed doors, forfeiting a match, points deduction or disqualification from the relevant competition.

What has changed?

In relation to the rules governing the behavior of a sole person, the main change is that the ban for discriminatory behavior has been increased from five to ten games. However, Article 13 of the 2019 Code seeks to address the issue of discriminatory behavior in football by holding clubs and national associations to account rather than individuals. The fine to be imposed on clubs and associations for the actions of their supporters and members has been reduced from a minimum of CHF 30,000 to a minimum of CHF 20,000 for a first offence. Although the minimum fine has been reduced, Article 13.2(a) of the 2019 Code now adds the possibility of a club being forced to play a match “with a limited number of spectators”, even for a first offence. In instances where clubs or associations are repeatedly in breach of Article 13.1, FIFA is now able to impose a “prevention plan” on a club or national association, the implementation of which will be supervised by FIFA.

As well as the changes highlighted above, FIFA has also introduced three new elements into the rules governing discriminatory behavior in the 2019 Code:

  1. The definition of “discriminatory behavior” in Article 13.1 now includes reference to an individual’s “sexual orientation”, enabling FIFA to sanction individuals, clubs or associations for homophobic behavior;
  2. An individual who has been the subject of alleged discriminatory behavior is now entitled to make an oral or written victim impact statement (which are often used in common law jurisdictions) to be considered in FIFA’s disciplinary process; and
  3. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, a referee has the ability to abandon a match due to discriminatory behavior and declare the match forfeited.

The effectiveness of these new measures remains to be seen but the increasing number of instances of alleged racist behavior in football has forced FIFA to raise this issue to the top of their agenda.