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Friday, March 28, 2003
Racism or just a misunderstanding?
LONDON -- After Newcastle United's Champions League tie against Inter Milan two weeks ago Lomana LuaLua made an official complaint through his club that Christian Vieri had racially abused him.
Last Friday, UEFA decided there was no case to answer mainly because of the lack of witnesses.
Therein lies the problem with such accusations. On one hand, why would LuaLua, a Congo international, make such a complaint? He had only been on the pitch a few minutes after coming on as a substitute so there was no bad blood between the players. Did LuaLua make the story up? If so, why?
Yet Vieri has maintained his innocence of racist remarks, saying that insults were exchanged "but with normal words you use in a game." Vieri's agent suggested that when the Italian striker said "get back" to LuaLua as he prepared to take a free-kick the word "back" could have been misunderstood as "black."
In the same match there was also an official complaint made by Newcastle that other black players, notably Titus Bramble, were victims of racial chanting by Inter supporters, which will be investigated by UEFA.
I was at the game and was not aware of anything untoward and was surprised when the matter was brought up in the after-match press conferences. Was my hearing going? Was I so wrapped up in the game and filing my report that I missed what was going on around the pitch?
Black players can be booed but this is not necessarily because of their color -- they may have fouled an opponent and any jeers have nothing to do with their skin. The distinction has to be drawn and black players are not sacrosanct when it comes to being booed -- indeed, it can almost be a compliment because it is often said fans do not boo bad players.
The following week Arsenal played in Valencia and the Gunners' captain Patrick Vieira was unhappy that, for the second time, visiting black players were, he claimed, picked upon.
Vieira said: "It happened two years ago when we played Valencia and it happened again. It will also happen again if we go there in two years, because people will not do anything about it.
"I hoped this time things might have changed because of the abuse we suffered last time but no, nothing has been done. I feel like it is seen as a normal part of what happens at a game and it should never be seen as normal.
"People make the excuse that they don't see it or hear it but they must. I've been told you could hear the chanting on TV, so people at the ground must have been aware of what was going on."
Arsenal made an official complaint which again UEFA will investigate. Yet nothing about racist abuse appeared in the report of the official UEFA match observer; a high-ranking UEFA official I spoke to who watched the match on television said he heard nothing unsavory; a respected colleague who writes for an English broadsheet said he did not hear anything of a racist nature in Valencia.
The UEFA official asked me: "Why is it only the English who make such complaints? We rarely get them from any other country. Ninety five percent of the racist complaints come from England."
He made the point that teams from, for example, Germany or France travel to Spain or Italy without the problems the English seem to encounter.
As with most aspects of such a sensitive area there seems to be more questions than answers.
Perhaps it is because the English media is more vigilant than other countries' press corps. What may be acceptable or unimportant elsewhere is jumped upon by those from England, where racism in football has all but been eliminated. There is still simmering hooliganism, but I cannot remember the last time I heard racist abuse at an English ground.
Or could it be that English tabloids know how to spin a story and chants from opposing supporters can be "misinterpreted?"
Maybe fans on the continent are reacting to the growing number of racist complaints. England has a reputation for hooliganism and there is a suspicion many extremist supporters abroad feel they should ensure the English live up to this image, so street fighting becomes inevitable.
Is it the same with racism where some spectators believe they should now "wind up" the opposition in this manner? Or is the whole thing being blown out of proportion?
UEFA has a strong anti-racist policy and has punished offenders such as the Slovakian F.A. and PSV Eindhoven when there has been proof of racist abuse. Sinisa Mihajlovic was banned for two games three years ago for comments made to Vieira by the Lazio defender.
But UEFA cannot act without proof, which can be difficult to obtain and it is difficult for the authorities to punish a player simply on the word of an opponent -- any racism needs to be witnessed by third parties.
Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.