From Millwall fans to match officials at Paris Saint-Germain: the ugly face of racism in football

Days after Lions supoorters booed players taking the knee before a match, the PSG-Basaksehir Champions League game was postponed after an alleged racist comment by an official

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A little less than half an hour passed between kick-off at Millwall on Tuesday evening and a red card being shown at the Parc des Princes, Paris.

Two events, 724 kilometres apart, both with a lasting resonance for how the world’s most popular sport confronts racism, and, as some powerful voices suggest, perhaps watershed moments in football’s recognising that it has a deep-rooted problem.

At Millwall, nobody booed when players of the home team and visiting Queens Park Rangers made symbolic gestures against racism at 7.45pm UK time. Dispiritingly, there had been a very real expectation there would be booing.

Three days earlier, as Millwall welcomed a limited number of fans back into the New Den after nine months of behind-closed-doors matches – a period in which players taking a knee has become a powerful ritual at most English professional matches – there was loud, sustained booing at kick-off.

After widespread condemnation, Millwall the club took action to make sure it was not repeated.

Their efforts may have been clumsy – Millwall wrote in a letter to all those with tickets on Tuesday that “the eyes of the world are on this football club – your club – and they want us to fail” – but instead of boos there was gentle applause when players linked arms behind a banner promoting equality.

Whether or not it needed fans to be told that showing respect for an anti-racism gesture is an act of defiance against a world that "wants us to fail", time will tell.

What happened in Paris at 9.13pm French time was not so stage-managed. It was 0-0 in Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League match against Istanbul Basaksehir.

The Romanian referee, Ovidiu Hategan, had just called a foul against PSG’s Presnel Kimpembe. From the Basaksehir coaching staff and substitutes there was noisy protest, apparently because one of their players, Rafael, had been booked seconds earlier and Kimpembe was not shown a yellow card.

The protests merited a card, the match officials concluded. Hategan asked Sebastian Coltescu, the nearest fourth official, who should be sent to the dressing-room. It was Pierre Webo, assistant coach and a former Cameroon international striker.

The “negru”, Coltescu said to Hategan in Romanian, pointing out Webo, who then approached the two match officials and asked, four times, “Why did you say ‘negro’?” In the empty Parc des Princes, the dialogue was clearly audible from several tiers away, where reporters were sitting.

Tensions rose, Webo was separated from Coltescu and Hategan by some of his colleagues and players began to gather around the confrontation, PSG’s Neymar, Marquinhos and Kylian Mbappe among them.

The two teams then agreed to leave the pitch. Mbappe is reported to have said: “We can’t play with this guy,” apparently referring to Coltescu.

Demba Ba, the Senegal striker who was among Basaksehir’s substitutes confronted the fourth official to ask why he had used the term. “When you talk about a white man, you don’t talk about ‘the white man’, so why do you say that for a black man?”

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 08: Players of Millwall and Queens Park Rangers pose with a banner against inequality prior to the Sky Bet Championship match between Millwall and Queens Park Rangers at The Den on December 08, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
Players of Millwall and Queens Park Rangers with an anti-racism banner ahead of their Championship match on Tuesday. Getty

After various interventions by the Uefa match delegates, in which it was suggested the match be resumed with Coltescu changing places with the on-site referee in charge of VAR. Basaksehir rejected that proposal and the game was officially postponed. It was agreed the 76 minutes outstanding should be replayed on Wednesday under the watch of an entirely new group of match officials.

Uefa have opened an investigation. They can impose a minimum 10-match ban for racism offences. Uefa have had in place since 2009 a protocol that allows players to leave the field if they are being subject to racist abuse, which was designed principally for cases of abuse from the crowd. It has not been enacted in a high profile senior match. The decision of both the PSG and Basaksehir teams to abandon the Parc des Princes is a first.

“It could be a turning-point,” said Olivier Dacourt, the former France international who played in Serie A and the Premier League and campaigns against racism in the sport. “It was a brave move by all the players.

"In some ways," Dacourt told L'Equipe, "it was a good thing it was a behind-closed-doors game. If there had been 45,000 in the Parc des Princes, what was said [by the fourth official] would not have been heard so clearly.

"It would have come down to Webo’s word against the word of the match officials, and probably not have had the same outcome. What everybody heard were the things players, unfortunately, do hear.”

At Millwall last Saturday they heard it in a different form: the booed rejection of a gesture that asks simply that institutional racism be recognised and given a few seconds of thought.