Already trying to hold off his political rivals a week before the UK’s general election, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced criticism from one of the leading officials in European football for past comments calling women in burqas “letterboxes.”
Speaking to the Daily Mirror at a time when racist incidents in football matches are seemingly on the rise, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said politicians were partly to blame.
“When you see high politicians, Prime Ministers — when you see presidents of Republics who are racists, who were sexist, you see that something is wrong,” Ceferin told the newspaper. “Because if you see an idiot from the streets shouting you say: ‘Okay, put him in prison and that’s it.’
“But when politicians start speaking they are not punished. And we have that in Europe a lot more and more … “
Johnson — the Conservative leader who has seen his party’s lead in the polls lessen — wrote in a column for the Daily Telegraph last year that it was “absolutely ridiculous” women went around looking like “letterboxes.” The UK’s Press Gazette reported that in the immediate aftermath there was an increase in anti-Muslim incidents.
And in 2002 in the same newspaper, Johnson, referring to then prime minister Tony Blair’s visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, wrote “the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.
“What a relief it must be for Blair to get out of England. It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies … “
Ceferin said Johnson was being hypocritical when he then criticized UEFA after England’s black players were subjected to monkey chants in a Euro 2020 qualifier at Bulgaria in October.
Johnson said that the “the vile racism we saw and heard last night has no place in football or anywhere else.”
And a spokesman for Johnson added: “Uefa need to face up to facts — this stain on football is not being adequately dealt with. Racism and discrimination must be driven out of football once and for all.”
Ceferin responded in the Mirror: “When a politician that calls women with burqas post boxes or mailboxes then says publicly that he condemns you UEFA — do you reply to that? Do you believe it’s honest? Come on.”
The Conservative Party was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNN.
But Ceferin knows UEFA needs to step up its game, too.
UEFA’s response has often been tame when it comes to sanctions. For example, for the racist abuse directed towards England’s players, it handed out a mere $83,000 fine to Bulgaria’s FA and ordered the national team to play one game behind closed doors.
He promised that the governing body would add diversity to its 10-man disciplinary committee, which is currently all white, according to the Mirror.
“Everything is ready, so that we can put in additional members of disciplinary committee because now it’s a fixed number,” said Ceferin.
“We have already some proposals. But it’s too early to speak publicly about it. It will happen in March. The statutes will be changed. And then a week later we can do it.”
Besides England’s match in Bulgaria, England’s players also faced racism in a qualifier in Montenegro last March.
In the club game, among other incidents, Inter Milan’s striker Romelu Lukaku has been targeted. It happened in a league game against Cagliari and he claimed he was racially abused in a Champions League match at Sparta Prague.
And Mario Balotelli threatened to walk off the pitch when he was racially abused by Verona fans last month.
Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum told CNN this week he would walk off the pitch if he received racial abuse, no matter what the game was.
“Why should I play in that case? I think everyone should do it [walk off]. I think that’s the way you support another person, because why should you go on? If you play on, it will never stop.”