The third Unite Against Racism conference – staged by UEFA, the Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) network and the international players' union FIFPro – opened in the Polish capital Warsaw on Tuesday with calls from speakers for diversity in football to be celebrated and nurtured, and for efforts to be stepped up in the growing campaign to eliminate racism, intolerance and discrimination from the game.
The Polish Football Association (PZPN) is hosting the conference, to which 250 delegates have been invited from associations, leagues, clubs, players, non-governmental organisations, the media and the world of politics. The event aims to raise awareness of the evils of racism and intolerance, share ideas and experiences and look for ways of combatting a phenomenon that is still yet to be totally erased from football.
UEFA General Secretary David Taylor said that it was appropriate that such a conference was taking place in Poland, which will be co-hosting the UEFA EURO 2012™ final round with Ukraine. "It was indeed at EURO 2008™ in Austria and Switzerland that we launched our Respect campaign," Mr Taylor recalled. "And what a success that was. It was a magical football tournament played in an atmosphere of a real football festival.
'Celebration and commitment'
"With only some minor exceptions, the behaviour of the fans of the national teams could not be faulted, and for me it was truly inspiring to see how the various nationalities combined and intermingled in the fan zones and in the stadiums," he added. "That is what football should be about – not antagonism, not abuse, not violence – simply a celebration of our sport and the commitment of football fans to supporting their national team and club."
The UEFA General Secretary said that over the last couple of years, UEFA had taken important disciplinary decisions against racism, with the range of penalties widened as well. "We have a message of zero tolerance for racism in our football stadiums," he explained. "UEFA President Michel Platini wrote to all match delegates at the beginning of this season urging them to recognise the gravity of any racist incidents and make sure that they are properly reported. At UEFA we try to be vigilant and on our guard, and we're ready to take action where incidents occur."
'Change can occur'
Mr Taylor acknowledged that while sanctions could have a deterrent effect, they could not be the long-term answer. "That lies in better education, awareness and cultural change," he said. "It takes time and effort, but change can occur. Indeed, our social partnerships with FARE and FIFPro are very important. We need their expert advice and national networks to help us spread the message. And we need the active involvement of players and former players to make this whole campaign credible and relevant to a football audience."
Speaking on behalf of the hosts, the Polish Secretary of State in the Sports Ministry, Adam Giersz, and the President of the PZPN, Grzegorz Lato, said that a considerable number of projects were under way in Poland to fight the damaging threat of racism. Educational campaigns and programmes aimed at supporters were in full progress, with the Polish government especially determined that no racist incidents would affect the EURO final round in just over three years' time. The Polish football authorities, they said, were working ceaselessly to promote the message that racism must be eliminated.
Players as role models
FIFPro General Secretary Theo van Seggelen told the conference that professional players were ideal role models to set an example in the anti-racist fight. "Working with UEFA, FARE and other supporting groups, we can ensure that the message from football is clear and strong against racism," he said. "We feel that players must play an important part in educating people about the evils of racism. This game [against racism] is a special game – and we have to win this game."
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