UEFA president Michel Platini promised that referees would stop Euro 2012 matches if players suffer abuse from fans, as questions on racism in Poland and Ukraine dominated a press conference on Wednesday.
Platini said UEFA has empowered referees to “temporarily stop the game and finally cancel the game if this racism keeps rearing its head.”
Concern was fueled by a British TV program last week showing discrimination and violent incidents at recent club matches in the co-host nations.
Ahead of the kick-off today, the head of a Europe-wide campaign against discrimination in soccer acknowledged it posed more potential problems than previous tournaments.
“There is no question we are worried about this tournament more than any other,” Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) director Piara Powar told reporters on the sidelines of Platini’s press conference.
UEFA invited the FARE network to help select a group of 31 expert spotters, who will monitor every team’s fans for any banners, chants and behavior inside stadiums which breach UEFA’s zero-tolerance anti-discrimination policy.
Powar said that Platini “understands what is going on” and that a team could even be expelled from the tournament for a third conviction from UEFA’s independent judicial bodies.
Four years ago, UEFA fined Croatia 20,000 Swiss francs (US$21,000) for its fans’ neo-Nazi flags and chants during a Euro 2008 quarter-final loss to Turkey in Vienna, Austria. At Euro 2012, Croatia play Spain, Italy and the Republic of Ireland.
Platini said he had not seen the BBC documentary, titled Stadiums of Hate, and initially suggested that Poland and Ukraine offered a soft target for criticism days before they hosted the tournament.
However, he acknowledged that racism was a problem for society across Europe — including in England and his home country, France.
“There is more and more nationalism in Europe. You can feel this at a number of football matches,” Platini said in French. “There are some worries, some big worries, but a lot has been done thanks to football.”
Platini said UEFA would “always” support the decisions of its referees, who were given authority three years ago to respond to hostile incidents by halting matches.
“We will stop the game if there are problems because I think racism is the worst of this,” he said.
However, Platini warned Italy forward Mario Balotelli that he would get a yellow card for fulfilling a recent threat to walk off the field to protest any abuse.
“It’s not the player, Mr Balotelli, who is in charge [of refereeing a match],” Platini said.
UEFA referees director Pierluigi Collina said later that the 12 match officials had briefed the 16 competing teams on standards expected at the tournament.
“Referees have a protocol, so they know what they have to do. The referees are ready,” Collina said.
Platini also downplayed questions relating to Ukraine’s record on human rights and its jailing of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko for abuse of office.
The government in Platini’s home country has said its officials will boycott matches in Ukraine — where Les Bleus play — to protest the treatment of Tymoshenko.
“UEFA does not get involved in politics,” Platini said. “Western countries can boycott if they want to. It’s my role to simply organize the competition.”