With several top footballers facing allegations of hurling racial abuse at opponents on the pitch, Fifa president Sepp Blatter sparked an angry reaction on Wednesday by suggesting that players involved in such incidents could settle the matter with a simple handshake.
Blatter plunged himself into more controversy on Wednesday when he told CNN that players who suffer racial abuse should simply shake hands with their abuser.
Blatter — who was re-elected unopposed earlier this year amid claims of corruption within Fifa — added he didn’t believe that racism was prevalent within football.
His claims came on the back of a Football Association (FA) and police investigation into whether England captain John Terry racially abused Queenspark Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand and the announcement by the FA on Wednesday they had charged Uruguayan Luis Suarez with racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.
Blatter, however, insisted that generally racism did not exist within the sport and there was no need for investigations into claims by the likes of Evra and Ferdinand.
“There is no racism, but maybe there is a word or gesture which is not the correct one,” the 75-year-old Blatter told CNN World Sport.
“The one affected by this should say this is a game and shake hands.”
Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand, brother of Anton, wrote on Twitter that he was “astonished” by Blatter’s reported comments.
“Sepp Blatter your comments on racism are so condescending it’s almost laughable. If fans shout racist chants but shake our hands is that ok?” Ferdinand wrote. “I feel stupid for thinking that football was taking a leading role against racism … it seems it was just on mute for a while.”
Meanwhile Evra told French TV that Suarez used a racist slur “at least 10 times” during United’s 1-1 draw at Liverpool in the Premier League.
Liverpool said Suarez will plead not guilty and insisted that the club is “fully supportive of Luis in this matter”.
Terry has said his comments were taken out of context, but is being investigated by the FA and London police.
In response to Blatter’s comments, English football’s governing body said: “The FA are committed to eradicating all forms of discrimination in football where they exist.”
Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of England’s players’ union, said Blatter’s comments were “insensitive and inappropriate at this time”.
“It’s ironic that Sepp Blatter should come out and talk like that because we’ve worked hard to get Fifa to have anti-racism on the agenda,” Taylor said. “As the president of Fifa he’s got to be shouting from the top of the hills that it’s unacceptable on the pitch. We want players to set an example to the rest of the world and particularly the supporters.”
Seeking to calm a growing furor, Blatter issued a further statement through Fifa that his comments had been “misunderstood”, and that he is taking the issue of racism seriously.
“I am committed to fighting this plague and kicking it out of football,” Blatter said. “What I wanted to express is that, as football players, during a match, you have ‘battles’ with your opponents, and sometimes things are done which are wrong.
“But, normally, at the end of the match, you apologise to your opponent if you had a confrontation during the match, you shake hands, and when the game is over, it is over.”
The Fifa president had earlier turned to Twitter trying to calm the growing anger in England.
“Racism and discrimination of any kind have no place in football,” Blatter wrote. “I have said this many times before, and I will say it again and again.”
“However — and it is not an excuse — sometimes, in the heat of the moment, things are said and done on the field of play,” he wrote. “This does not mean that, in general, there is racism on the field of play.”
In the interview with Al-Jazeera, Blatter sought to defuse suggestions that racism and discrimination were problems in world football.
“During a match you may make a movement towards somebody or you may say something to somebody who is not exactly looking like you, but at the end of the day it is forgotten,” Blatter insisted. “Racism — if there are spectators or, outside the field of play, there are movements [of] discrimination, but on the field of play, I deny that there is racism.”
However, in further evidence that suggests racism persists in football stadiums, Uefa will on Thursday prosecute a case in which England was the victim of alleged discrimination.
The Bulgarian football federation has been charged after its fans allegedly directed verbal abuse at England players during a European Championship qualifier in Sofia in September.
English anti-racism group Kick It Out said Blatter’s comments “don’t help in the ultimate goal of kicking racism out football and making it a discrimination-free zone”. — Sapa-AP