It’s a pretty safe bet Madrid’s Vincente Calderon Stadium will be at capacity today when Liverpool visits for its Champions League Group D match against Atletico Madrid. Shame.
You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and UEFA will never get a second chance to make its first major stance against racism in Champions League football.
By now the chain of events leading up to today’s match is well chronicled: At Atletico’s last Champions League match against Marseille, police inside Calderon were accused of being “heavy-handed” with Marseille supporters in the stands; it was said the club failed to adequately secure the grounds, Marseille’s journey to the stadium or the press area. In the meantime, Atletico supporters are accused of levying monkey chants against toward the field, Marseille supporters and two black journalists.
Initially, Atletico was facing a two-match Champions League ban at its ground and a requirement to play those matches at least 300 kilometers from Madrid, but UEFA wasn’t punishing them for the racism charges. No, it was for the lax security and general unruliness at the ground and outside. Ultimately, UEFA conceded to pressure from Atletico and Liverpool and only fined Atletico. UEFA said it wouldn’t be fair to the Liverpool supporters who had made travel arrangements to Madrid to reschedule their itineraries.
UEFA cleverly tried to disguise the fine (punishment?) as a statement against racism, but don’t kid yourself. It’s kinda like the American Congress when it stuffs unrelated budget cuts, taxes and mandates into major laws as concessions to the other party in order to get the bigger initiative through the legislative process. It’s a joke, and accepted with a wink and a nod. UEFA punished Atletico, but it said nothing against racism here, even in the statement on its decision. It’s kinda like putting a rapist in jail on a parking violation, and justifying it by saying “Well, at least he’s off the street!”
What happens if today the monkey chants start again in force? Spain and England don’t have the best football relationship; for example, England won’t play an international friendly at the Barnebeau. What if the Spanish hooligans–an no we’re not indicting the whole population of Spanish fans; we understand it’s the actions of a few that sully the whole–use the spotlight of a major international competition and a worldwide TV audience to really spread their poison?
Well UEFA has an answer! It’s put it all on referee Claus Bo Larsen who has been told he can put a stop to the match if the racial taunts begin. Sad. Imagine a testy atmosphere, and the referee sends everyone home before the show is over? The consequences might be too horrid to imagine.
There is no right answer here, well not today any way. UEFA missed its opportunity two weeks ago to enforce the stadium ban, or at a minimum, play it in front of an empty house–granted that doesn’t look good on television.
One thing in favor of things being tranquil today is the heavy Spanish flavor to the Liverpool team, from manager Rafa Benitez to Fernando Torres, who unfortunately for him won’t play today due to injury. That could keep things in check. And hopefully, the club responds with heavy security and heavy marketing to fans, stressing that it’s a good idea they behave today.
Sad. We haven’t said a word yet about how interesting a matchup this is. Not only is there the Spanish connection at Liverpool, but Atletico has been a dangerous side so far. It started the LaLiga campaign strongly and is 2-0 in the Champions League with convincing wins over Marseille and PSV Eindhoven.
Sad. Football continues to be a political platform. Football has also become a stage for hate. Football is under seige, and when powerful organizations such as UEFA tacitly captitulate as it has in this case, problems are far from resolved.