Despite ongoing concerns over prejudiced behavior during soccer matches at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, better known as FIFA, disbanded its task force against racism and discrimination Monday.
According to the Associated Press, the association penned a letter to task force members stating that the group had essentially served its purpose and was “hereby dissolved and no longer in operation.”
“The FIFA Task Force Against Racism and Discrimination was set up with your help on a temporary basis to develop recommendations for FIFA,” wrote Gerd Dembowski, diversity and anti-discrimination manager for FIFA. “We are therefore delighted to inform you that all of the task force’s recommendations have been implemented and all resulting projects are ongoing.”
The announcement drew sharp criticism from fans and players who feel that racism is still a major issue in the world of soccer. Over the years, several players have come forward to detail their brushes with racism on and off the field, like Brazilian futbol star Ronaldinho. The former Barcelona midfielder spoke out after a Mexican politician posted a racial slur on social media following Ronaldinho’s signing with Mexican soccer club the White Roosters.
“It’s hard to talk about because it’s something that hurts everyone, regardless of color, race or country,” Ronaldinho said at a news conference in 2014. “We hope that it doesn’t continue like this and that soon it stops.”
Asian and African-born players who play for European teams have also spoken about the racial abuse they suffer during matches against predominately white teams. The Diplomat reported an incident in 2013 where a racially charged incident forced German-Ghanaian soccer player Kevin-Prince Boateng of Italian football club AC Milan to walk off the field after players from the opposing team hurled racial slurs at him during an exhibition match.
“We are disappointed and saddened by what has happened,” Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “Milan play[s] for the right to respect all players. We need to stop these uncivilized gestures.”
According to the BBC, FIFA’s anti-racism task force was later established by former FIFA president Sepp Blatter and headed by Jeffrey Webb. The group’s recommendations for combating incidents of racism included employing extra observers during games and imposing tougher penalties on clubs whose players, officials or fans engaged in discriminatory behavior.
The Union of European Football Associations also encouraged players to speak out against racism by reporting incidents involving teammates and fans. Earlier this month, the European soccer association ordered Russian club Rostov to rope off a stadium section for a Champions League game as punishment for fans’ racist behavior, the Associated Press reports.
“Despite the many victories we have won in football against discrimination and prejudice, we know we still have a problem today and we know more has to change,” said Federico Addiechi, FIFA’s Head of Corporate Social Responsibility. “We have to step up our efforts, to keep fighting.”
Former task force member Osau Obayiuwana expressed concern over the association’s sudden move to dismantle the anti-racism group, but said he wasn’t all that surprised.
“I wish I could say I am shocked by the decision, but unfortunately I am not,” Obayiuwana told the Associated Press. “I personally think there remained a lot of very serious work for the task force to have done – the 2018 World Cup in Russia being one such matter. But it is evident the FIFA administration takes a different position.”
Obayiuwana, a journalist, broadcaster and qualified lawyer, also added that the taskforce never had a meeting under Congolese federation president Constant Omari, who replaced Webb as task force chairman after he was convicted on racketeering charges in 2015, The Guardian reports.
“I wrote [to] him (Omari), more than once, asking for when a meeting would be held,” Obayiuwana said. “But I never received a reply from him.”
Fatma Samoura, FIFA’s first female and African secretary general, has since defended the association’s decision to dissolve the anti-racism task force.
“The task force had a specific mandate, which it has fully fulfilled,” Samoura said Monday at the SoccerEx global football conference in Manchester. “My presence here is a demonstration that FIFA has a zero tolerance policy against discrimination. Not only racism but any kind of discrimination, including violation of human rights.”