Fifa could stop racism and other unacceptable comments. But it won’t.

by Tony Attwood

Fifa has published a report pointing out the increase in the number of insults that footballers are victims on social networks during international competitions, and as a result has presented a plan to fight the problem.  (There’s not much on it in the English media, but European media has covered it).

As a result, Fifa has joined forces with the international players’ union, Fifpro, “to devise a plan to protect teams, players, referees and fans against the insults that circulate on social networks during international competitions,” it said in a statement.

A report published on the occasion of the International Day against Hate Speech, recently reported on more than 400,000 messages published on social networks during the semi-finals and finals of the 2021 Euros and the African Cup in 2022, showing that “more than half of the players have received insults coming, for a significant part, from their own countrymen”.

Homophobic comments made up 40% of the insults and racist comments 38%.   And as a result Fifa and Fifpro “have decided to launch a moderation service, to be used during the competition. This algorithm, which concerns both men’s and women’s soccer, will automatically detect hateful terms in its database and published on identified accounts, in order to make the message invisible to the recipient and his subscribers.

“The author of the comment and his subscribers will still be able to view it, but its reach will be significantly reduced,” the organisers of the approach say.

“Our duty is to protect football and, therefore, footballers,” said Gianni Infantino. “Unfortunately, we observe a worrying trend of publishing unacceptable messages…. This form of discrimination, like all others, has no place in football.

“Football has a duty to protect players and other communities potentially affected by these increasingly frequent insults in the professional setting. Such comments can have a profound effect on their personalities, their families and their performance, not to mention their well-being or mental health,” said David Aganzo, president of Fifpro.

Of course, a further line of action would be to prosecute people who are insulting footballers, but to do this one would need a significant number of individuals working on tracking the offenders, and without the co-operation of Twitter and Facebook in banning accounts opened in the name of an individual who doesn’t exist this would be hard going.

It is possible of course to track some people but I fear the hardcore would continue to get away with it because they are adept at utilising the media.   Certainly members of the Untold team get abusive messages posted against them, and even attempts at financial extortion.   In England, the police simply don’t have the time or resources to get involved in tracking and tracing the individuals involved.

It is also the fact that there is at least one country in the world that has made the use of all website names (and hence email addresses) available free of charge.  That is a sovereign nation (albeit a little one) and many online abusers are working through accounts based in such locations.

And it is also the case that little is being done in England in relation to those who are abusive toward players in international games, and that probably is not surprising, given that the authorities at Wembley were unable to handle even the comparatively simple issue of admission to the ground for the Euro final.  Everyone knew there was a problem from 9am.  No one did a thing. Except call the offenders names.

But it is also worth recording a difference of opinion among those involved in writing about football for Untold.  There is a view among us that it must be possible to track people who use Twitter and Facebook to abuse footballers.  But not all agree, given that both companies operate out of the United States, and short of the US taking action, the services will remain as they are.

Indeed one of us runs a Facebook group with over 14,000 subscribers.  That group now has several people working on banning people.  And on the home front, across the years over 10,000 accounts have been banned on this site since we opened 14 years ago.

However, there has been some progress.  Go back 20 years and anti-Semitic chants and slogans were commonplace at Arsenal.  Now, although they are heard sometimes, it is far less common, and many ticket holders will tell abusers to shut up and/or report them.

That comes out of the fact that season ticket holders are in the ground 20+ times a season and I think there is a sense of “ownership” of the club and the way people behave in relation to the club.

That is what the international teams don’t have and that is where the prime problem lies – and of course it is up to the FA in England to find a solution.  

If Fifa said to the national associations, “if we have any recordings of unacceptable chanting etc, you will be kicked out of the competition,” then action would be taken and the associations would be much more careful who they sell tickets to.   But of course, Fifa doesn’t act.  If it doesn’t mean money in their pockets they will do nothing.  Apart from blame someone else.

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