At a time of deep crisis, football can be a symbol of unity and tolerance – and skin colour is invisible under a football shirt. This was the message given by UEFA first vice-president Şenes Erzik in a keynote speech to the third Unite Against Racism Conference in Warsaw on Wednesday.
"Political convictions, sexual preferences and religious beliefs have nothing to do with football – we are all equal with a ball at our feet," Mr Erzik told representatives from associations, leagues, clubs, players' and non-governmental organisations, the media and the world of politics. The conference is being staged by UEFA, the Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) network and the international players' union FIFPro.
"I think you will all agree with me that football extends beyond borders, irons out differences and unleashes people's passions," Mr Erzik told the audience. "You who, on a day-to-day basis, lead the fight to reduce discrimination and increase respect in football and in society as a whole – you know how difficult it is to mobilise people around an idea, even one as exciting and worthy as our commitment to combating discrimination in all its forms.
'School of life'
"Football has that rare gift of being able to generate enthusiasm, to mobilise big and small, rich and poor, black and white, believers and non-believers," he added. "At a time when everyone is asking lots of questions about identity, belonging and community, non-governmental organisations and national football associations continue to organise the school of life that is grassroots football in your suburbs and local neighbourhoods.
Force for integration
"How many immigrant children have integrated in society on a muddy, makeshift football pitch between two industrial wastelands? How many children from different parts of the world have started to learn our languages with the words 'corner', 'offside' or 'penalty'? It is this world of football, this European society celebrating diversity, that we want to see develop and flourish."
Need for respect
Mr Erzik said that discussions on racism and discrimination had already begun at European level, and expressed the hope that further strides could be made in asserting the need for respect. "The European Parliament has always been very mindful of important social issues," he said. "The 2006 declaration on tackling racism in football was certainly a significant milestone. These days, football is a powerful force for integration and tolerance in a Europe full of pessimism."
The UEFA first vice-president said he believed that it was the duty of football to lead the way in confronting social issues – and that the sport could even play a part in solving difficult political problems. "UEFA recently received the World Fair Play Trophy for its organisation of [UEFA] EURO 2008™ and its respect and unite against racism campaign," he explained. "Respect has many different aspects and facets – respect for the rules, respect for the referee, respect for opponents, self-respect and the fight against doping, respect for others, respect for the environment and, last but not least, respect for diversity.
"With [UEFA] EURO 2008™, we proved that it was possible to organise a major international football tournament in a spirit of mutual respect," Mr Erzik concluded. "Tolerance of racism, exclusion, sexism or homophobia is unacceptable. Skin colour is invisible under a football shirt. Today, UEFA is offering you its support as we continue to make progress together."
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