Let's not be delusional. Racism exists everywhere. In most cases, its extremely minimal or perpetuated by a small minority. There are still places in the world I would not like to go to as a minority and there are still places where racism exists rampantly, but in general things are getting better. Sports, on the other hand, has always been a loud and visible black mark of racism, bigotry and most any form of discrimination in society. Football in particular is one of the worst examples.
Football remains the one sport where it doesn't seem like things are getting much better. People still chant racist things. People still throw objects at players that are minorities or look different. But worst of all is the inaction by governing bodies and the support (yes, support) they get from fans, players, or even nations of the accused.
Serbia is one of the worst offenders of this. We saw yet another instance of racist chants this in their last U21 match against England.
But before we get to Serbia, let's tackle the root problem. Why does racism exist to such an extent in football than in regular day to day society?
This is a complex question but can be answered simply (if you want to cheat). Emotion. Sports and sporting events bring out raw emotion that in other venues and situations just don't occur. You don't really know why you love Aston Villa, you just do. We have blind support for our clubs and utter hatred for the opposition (without any good reason other than we were born/grew up in a different place or like a different colored kit). For people to show their hatred they must find an edge and more often than not, that ends up resulting in racist remarks, or hatred for anyone that is different. This can be because they have different players, different type of supporters, or just made up differences.
Sports are also a place where spectators and fans vent. They come here to enjoy (and in some cases take out the anger and frustration in their lives) when the beautiful game is played. This is a place where people can finally just let loose. Many people do this by supporting their team vehemently, but some people ruin it for everyone by taking it overboard. It doesn't have to be racism. In the past it has been hooliganism, violence or even just extreme drunkenness. Most of these other negative factors have been eradicated or extensively decreased (although it still exists in many countries like Serbia).
This is common for all sports, though. Why has racism been decreasing in every other sport but has, if anything, increased in football? Well, this answer is simple. Football governing bodies refuse to be consistent and/or authoritative enough to stop the problem. In American sports, there is no tolerance. It helps that there is a bit more diversity among the players and fans, but this is not a good enough excuse to let something as hurtful as racism to continue.
As Tom said yesterday, UEFA hasn't been consistent. They fined Porto $27,000 for racist chants against Mario Balotelli last year. They also fined Manchester City in that same game $40,000 for coming out of the tunnel late after halftime. That is insanity! How is a racism fine less than just being plain late to the pitch? It didn't help that it took nearly six weeks just for them to get to this decision.
Balotelli is even racially abused by his own countrymen. When playing against Juventus (as an Inter Milan player), Juventus fans shouted "A black man can't be Italian" against him that resulted in the next Juventus game being played behind closed doors. Their own national team player!
But even with all this happening, UEFA and other football governing associations have the opportunity to do something truly significant for society. They can bring down the hammer and give out very significant fines and big bans to national teams. Football is very important to most of these countries and it seems they will only understand the negative impacts of racism if they feel the repercussions.
We have seen in instances like in Serbia and other Balkan countries where not only does racism occur regularly, it is accepted. These countries have all had wars recently because they couldn't live together with people from a different race or ethnicity. All those nations have been cited for ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian war. We know that intolerance still exists extensively. I mean, the Serbian Football Federation even went as far to reject that there were any racism at all in the stadium during the Serbia - England U21 match! Even the Serbian team took part when the "Serbian team and coaches jostled and insulted them".
There is the chance that if UEFA does lay down heavy sanctions, people will understand that not only is discrimination not OK in football, but it is wrong in general. This can hopefully, lead to a more enlightened society. But not acting sufficiently, will only increase the already rampant problem of racism in football. Worse, it could lead to people thinking that if it's alright in football, in could be alright to be racist in other cases at well.
UEFA has a chance to go in and teach the people of every country why racism is not tolerated there or anywhere else in the world. Many people might argue that it's not UEFA's place, but that is a ridiculous statement. Any venue can and should be used when it comes to things like antisemitism, bigotry, racism, and discrimination.
The ball is in your court, UEFA.