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Points deductions for racism not the solution — fan projects

April 25, 2019

Following a series of racist incidents across European football, Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling has demanded points deductions for clubs. But Germany's "fan projects" believe there is a better way.

Fussball l Spieler Raheem Sterling
Image: picture alliance/dpa/S. Paston

A banana thrown on the pitch at Arsenal. Anti-Semitic chants on a tram in Manchester. Germany players racially abused by their own fans in Wolfsburg. Monkey noises aimed at English players in Montenegro.

Just some examples in a series of recent incidents across Europe which can only lead to one damning conclusion: football has a problem with racism.

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling was one of those England players targeted in Podgorica in March. The 24-year-old forward is an outspoken and eloquent critic of the way in which football deals with racism and this week demanded points deductions for clubs whose fans are found guilty of racist or discriminatory behavior. "It sounds harsh but which fan will risk racist behavior if it might relegate their team or ruin their title bid?" he said in an article in the The Times of London.

Sterling is absolutely right to demand the harshest punishments possible for racism, and points deductions would certainly send a clear signal that football's authorities are taking the issue seriously. And if clubs can be punished for fan indiscretions such as pitch invasions or the use of pyrotechnics, then why not for racism?

However, specialist football social workers in Germany believe that points deductions handed down from above would do little to combat a problem which is deeply embedded in society. Racism is a disease which must be tackled at its source and football needs to do much more than simply dishing out punishments which make for great headlines but don't actually get to the root of the problem.

Deutschland  SV Werder Bremen - 1. FC Nürnberg Nuernberg | Plakate gegen Rechts
'No football for fascists' — Werder Bremen fans take a stand Image: imago/Zink

In Germany, huge progress has been made since the 1980s and 1990s, when far-right ideologies were common on the terraces. Key to that progress are the so-called Fan Projects, socio-pedagogical organizations across the country which work with young football fans to educate them about extremism and support the development of an inclusive and diverse fan culture.

For Michael Gabriel, head of coordination for fan projects in Frankfurt, points deductions for racism would only scratch the surface and wouldn't represent a long-term solution. What's more, he says, they would give racists a direct influence on the sporting competition while punishing those who are most important when it comes to combating racism: the vast majority of normal fans.

"You need a system whereby you support those people on the terraces who are active in the fight against discrimination and racism and don't turn them into victims with collective punishments," he tells DW. "There has been a clear improvement in Germany when it comes to racism and right-wing extremism — but that's not to say there aren't still problems."

Indeed, fourth-division side Chemnitz made international headlines recently when a known neo-Nazi hooligan was openly mourned inside the stadium ahead of a league game, while third-division outfit Energie Cottbus are mired in a battle against right-wing extremism.

Football crowds reflect the communities in which they are based and stadiums are often a microcosm of society, no more so than in Dortmund, a city with one of the largest right-wing votes in western Germany. It's an issue that Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund takes extremely seriously, actively supporting anti-discrimination initiatives and funding educational visits to former concentration camps for young supporters. But there are limits to what a football club can do.

Deutschland Thilo Danielsmeyer
Thilo Danielsmeyer, Dortmund fan project Image: DW/M. Ford

"A points deduction is the hardest punishment imaginable for a football club," says Thilo Danielsmeyer, head of the Dortmund Fan Project. "Borussia Dortmund are heavily engaged in anti-racism projects, but there are right-wing groups and there is little the club can do to prevent people like that making racist comments inside the stadium. A points deduction would then be punishing one of the clubs which does the most to combat racism."

Germany's fan projects have been instrumental in helping to establish a culture inside the country's football stadia in which racist attitudes are made to feel unusual and unwelcome. Leadership and support from the top of the game is of course welcome, but the suspicion is that it represents little more than superficial lip-service to a battle which has to be fought from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.

"Of course, a points deduction would be a deterrent but only for 90 minutes," says Danielsmeyer. "It wouldn't solve the social problem outside the stadium. It would be better to keep highlighting the topic, keep stressing its importance and support long-term projects."

"We work with real people in real situations," adds Gabriel. "It can't work without genuine social engagement."

DW Matthew Ford Sports
Matt Ford Reporter and editor for DW Sports specializing in European football, fan culture & sports politics.@matt_4d
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