Aleksander Ceferin, the president of Uefa, has admitted more needs to be done to combat racism in European football and that he was not fully aware of the scale of the problem when he took charge of the governing body three years ago.
Uefa has come under criticism amid a spate of racist incidents in recent months, ranging from monkey chants aimed at Romelu Lukaku and Mario Balotelli in Italy, to the abuse that was directed at England’s black players during their Euro 2020 qualifier away to Bulgaria in October.
Uefa immediately began an investigation into the shameful scenes that took place in Sofia and ultimately decided to punish Bulgaria by forcing them to play their next competitive home game behind closed doors with a further match suspended for two years. The Bulgaria football union were also fined €75,000.
The sanction was criticised by the anti-discrimination network Football Against Racism in Europe (Fare), which said it was disappointed Bulgaria had not been expelled from the competition after being found guilty of a third offence this year, while Kick It Out said Uefa had “missed an opportunity” to send the right message.
Uefa has been criticised for its handling of another cases – especially by black players – and Ceferin has conceded that a different, stronger approach is required to tackle what appears to be a worsening problem.
“I don’t blame the players for [what they say,]” he said in an interview with the Daily Mirror. “I understand the players are desperate because of the punishments and the incidents that are happening again and again.
“I am not so naive to think we’ve done all we can and now everything is finished. We haven’t. We are trying and we care. We are ready to listen to criticism. Every week there is something – not just since Bulgaria, not since England, not since Cagliari [where Lukaku was racially abused]. We’ve been listening. Every week we hear about some shit happening around Europe. And we speak.”
Ceferin became president in September 2016 having been the president of Slovenia’s football association for the previous five years. Asked by the Mirror if he had underestimated how badly European football was blighted by racism, the one-time lawyer said: “Yes, I did. The situation in Europe is more and more tense. You can feel it.”
Ceferin believes politicians are in part to blame for stoking racism across the continent and is particularly critical of Boris Johnson, who himself had criticised Uefa for their sanctions against Bulgaria.
“When a politician who calls women with burqas postboxes or mailboxes then says publicly that he condemns you Uefa – do you reply to that?” Ceferin said. “Do you believe it’s honest? Come on.”