December is usually a time of joy and sharing. The footballing world, however, saw quite the opposite in the December just past. Three high-profile incidents of racism made the headlines, leading many to question whether enough is being done to tackle discrimination in football and the wider sporting world.

The trouble started early in the month, during the heated north London derby between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspurs. Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a contender for the Premier League’s Golden Boot, scored an early penalty to give Arsenal the lead. During celebrations, an angry Tottenham fan threw a banana peel at the Gabonese international – the despicable racist connotations need not be explained. Following the thrilling match that ended in a 4-2 Arsenal victory, an investigation was launched by Spurs and the Metropolitan Police, leading to an indefinite match ban for the accused fan as well as a criminal charge. Fellow players and managers were quick to support Aubameyang, with many high-profile figures publicly denouncing discriminatory acts in the game. Is such an outcry alongside a single fan receiving a ban enough to tackle such issues?

It would appear not. Only a week later, England’s World Cup star Raheem Sterling was racially abused from the stands during Manchester City’s defeat to Chelsea. The incident caused a huge public outcry, particularly after Sterling took action on Instagram claiming that the British media’s portrayal of young black players only aggravates prejudices. The young English winger, currently in fine form, pointed to two recent stories in the Daily Mail; one that seemed to vilify one of Sterling’s black teammates, 20-year-old Tosin Adarabioyo, for spending large amounts on a new house. The other story contrastingly regarded Phil Foden, a white Manchester city star of the same age, yet portrayed Foden’s spending of a similarly large amount on a new house in a much more positive manner. It is not difficult to agree with Sterling’s accusations. It is perhaps here where action needs to be taken to prevent discrimination in football, with the media having a role to educate the public on the ignorance of racism, rather than having the opposite effect.

The third incident occurred in Italy’s Serie A at the end of the month, during Napoli’s defeat to rivals Inter Milan. It was Napoli’s top-performing defender Kalidou Koulibaly who was on the receiving end of racial abuse from Inter Milan, eventually resulting in him receiving a red card due to his frustration. There was much anger after the match, with Napoli manager Carlo Ancelotti claiming the incident directly influenced his defender’s sending off and therefore the game, and that if it was to happen again he and his team would refuse to play. Such strong words clearly had an effect, and Italy’s football authorities took action by sanctioning attendance to Inter Milan’s next three home matches, an action widely applauded. This marks a significant advancement from the early incidents in England, and we will have to wait and see how effective it proves to be.

The three terrible incidents in December show how unfortunately racism is still alive in the football world, and seems to be on the rise. The different replies to these incidents – one a fan-directed ban, one a call for media education, and one a club-directed restriction – show that it is still unclear what response is needed to discriminatory incidents. Perhaps it is becoming clear that a mixture of these responses is necessary to punish and prevent future abuse.

Ben Hatchett

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