"A wake-up call for society and the wider European football community"

President Aleksander Čeferin explains why encouraging footballers to speak openly about their personal experiences of discrimination is a critical first step in rethinking UEFA’s efforts to eradicate racism from the European game.

UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin
UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin UEFA via Getty Images

The year 2020 has seen citizens around the world mobilise in response to two seismic events: first, to protect our families and communities from the global pandemic, then, to stand up for equal rights and justice for everyone.

It has been a wake-up call, for society and the wider European football community. It is a reality that billions of fans sometimes pay more attention to football than to their elected political leaders. In times of crisis, such enormous influence and reach bring added responsibility, and I am proud of the way European football has rallied to the sides of local communities in their time of need.

Since March, national associations, clubs and footballers across the continent have raised funds to purchase life-saving medical equipment, deliver food to the elderly and vulnerable, and helped public authorities spread critical health messages. It has been a reminder of football’s power to communicate and connect with everyone, regardless of their colour, gender or belief.

Similarly, clubs and players have shown solidarity with society’s outpouring of pain, anger and sadness following the tragic death of George Floyd in the United States. Athletes from a range of sports have spoken eloquently of a moment of genuine potential for governing bodies to rethink their anti-racism programmes.

Kalidou Koulibaly discusses racism he has experienced
Kalidou Koulibaly discusses racism he has experienced

UEFA’s responsibility

UEFA has always recognised its responsibility, both to address any form of racial bias within European football and take concrete steps to fight the sickening use of racist language against players.

Off-the-pitch, we work hand in hand with non-governmental organisations like Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) – a network that unites fan clubs, players’ unions, football associations and ethnic minority groups across Europe against racism and inequality. This collaboration shaped UEFA’s best practice guidelines for clubs and national associations on standing up to racism, including a Ten-Point Plan of Action that remains central to our overall mission to protect football. On-the-pitch, UEFA’s three-step rule gives officials the power to halt matches in the event of racist incidents. We have also used, and will continue to do so in August, the global visibility of our competitions to keep delivering our no to racism message.

Need to act together

However, in the wake of recent events, it is clear that raising awareness alone is not enough. Together with the rest of European football, we need to lift our game and find a qualitatively different approach to eliminate systemic racism from our sport.

Even for a governing body such as UEFA, it’s a tough challenge. Racism, discrimination – these attitudes are rooted in wider society and nothing will change without concerted government action through national institutions such as schools.

However, this cannot be an excuse to shirk football’s own responsibility. With 55 member associations and an audience of millions, UEFA is well-placed to unite and coordinate fans, players, clubs, leagues, administrative bodies and the media. To slay the beast of racism, we will all need to stand and act together.

Nadia Nadim on fighting racism
Nadia Nadim on fighting racism

1st step: understanding how racism really operates in sport

As a first step in shaping a sea change in UEFA and European football’s approach, we need to build on footballers' and fans' recent vocalisation of feelings and frustrations long held in check for fear of a backlash. Not just to encourage an open debate about diversity and representation, but also to genuinely understand how racism permeates into different levels of football: from top to bottom, from boardrooms to training grounds for young footballers.

It will not be comfortable listening, but we will not find a different solution without first identifying what doesn’t work now. This means encouraging individuals to keep talking openly about racism in football even when the topic is no longer headline news.

As a sign of UEFA’s recognition of the need to listen and learn before building a new approach, we have invited several well-known players, past and present, to talk about their own first-hand experiences of racism - both as children and as professional footballers.

Please take a moment to watch these often moving, always insightful testimonies. Personally, I was struck by how early racism can start to taint a young boy’s or young girl’s footballing dream. Each of these players overcame discrimination to achieve their goals, but it left me wondering how many other potential Kalidou Koulibalys or Nadia Nadims lost their will to overcome stereotypical comments or judgments based on the colour of their skin, their nationality, their religion, sexual orientation or gender.

It’s why many of the players come back to the same solution when sharing their personal perspective on where our sport should direct more time and resources to make a difference: using football’s popularity as a mass participation sport to educate families, communities, trainers and, above-all, children.

Aleksander Čeferin, UEFA President