FIFA announced changes to its disciplinary code on Friday, and the biggest tweak is a new addition to referee power that, in theory, could do much to help curb some of the racist abuse from supporters. Unfortunately, this is FIFA, where the theory almost never comes through in practice.
Thanks to the new rules, referees now have the ability to not just stop matches when they identify racist abuse from the stands, but to also declare the match an automatic forfeit on behalf of the offending fans’ club. This is without a doubt FIFA’s strongest stance against in-game racism yet. If applied correctly, it would result in a real, severe punishment that hits right were it matters most.
That’s a massive if, though. As it stands now, referees never call off matches for racist abuse. The applicable three-step protocol here is supposed to go like this: first, upon becoming aware of a racist action, the ref is to signal to the stadium announcers to issue a warning; after that, the referee should temporarily halt the match to see if that cuts out the nonsense; if that fails too, the ref is then allowed call an end to the match entirely.
However, no referee has ever gone so far as to call off a match due to racism, and it’s not because the first two steps of the protocol have been perfectly successful in silencing racist abuse. There have been team-led initiatives (most recently, Napoli said they would stop playing if Kalidou Koulibaly experienced abuse again), but referees have failed to apply the existing rule to its full extent by calling off a match themselves.
Now, FIFA has given even more power to the officials on the field, but in a way that will probably prove counterproductive. If refs were already reluctant to stop matches, how will they react now that stopping a match comes with such huge ramifications? Never mind the effect that handing down a forfeit due to racism would have on fans that were already wildly misbehaving, or the possibility of some terrible false flag gamesmanship. The automatic forfeit is nothing more than a payment of lip service towards a bigger, more institutionalized problem, one that referees will likely not be equipped to handle.
The forfeit rule isn’t the only anti-racism change in the new Disciplinary Code, either, and the other one similarly serves little actual purpose. FIFA is doubling the minimum suspensions for on-field racist abuse to ten games. The problem there is that racism in elite soccer has less to do with player-on-player abuse and is more about the rampant abuse raining down from the crowd.
If FIFA wants to actually stop racist abuse from supporters, it will have to actively encourage referees to actually use the tools available to them for doing so. The organization does seem to be putting a lot of weight on this new rule change, which could imply a renewed commitment to combating racism. Because of that, a new focus on using the rules is certainly possible, though still unlikely. Most, if not all, of FIFA’s anti-racism fixes have come and gone without a tangible effect on curbing the abuse.
Absent a more comprehensive set of reforms—like, say, having a FIFA official make this call rather than referees, who are more susceptible to the pressures of the crowd, or working with local FAs (beyond fining) to deal with the problem at the root—this new change will likely not have a significant impact on racist chants. Which is a shame, because it is a good rule, and FIFA very rarely gets something right, even on a theoretical level.