The Football Association, anti-racism campaigners and the British government lined up to criticise Uefa for its "paltry" response to the racist abuse and violence suffered by England Under-21 players in Serbia in October.
Serbia Under-21s will be forced to play their next match behind closed doors but have escaped with a fine of €80,000 (£65,000) in the wake of the violent mêlée and monkey chants that marred the match with England in Krusevac. Four Serbian players were suspended for between two and four matches while two members of the coaching staff were suspended for two years.
The FA's general secretary, Alex Horne, said he was disappointed with the sanctions and with Uefa's decision to suspend the England players Steven Caulker and Thomas Ince as well for unspecified "improper conduct". Horne said: "Let's be clear, racism is unacceptable in any form and should play no part in football. The scenes were deplorable and we do not believe the sanction sends a strong enough message."
Players including Rio and Anton Ferdinand immediately lambasted Uefa and anti-racism campaigners said that the European governing body had failed a crucial test. Kick It Out's chairman, Lord Ouseley, who this week criticised the ineffectual response of domestic football authorities to the racist controversies of the past year, said: "Kick It Out shares the concerns of many in football that abuse aimed at black players isn't taken seriously enough. This is a paltry slap on the wrist and again we haven't seen decisive action from Uefa."
Danny Rose, the England full-back who eventually responded to racist abuse from the crowd by kicking the ball away and was sent off, will serve a one-match ban for his dismissal. Caulker will miss the first two matches in the Under-21 European Championship next summer, against Italy and Norway, while Ince misses one game.
The FA said it would support Caulker and Ince in appealing against the bans. "It is the FA's vehement belief that its players and staff acted correctly in the face of provocation, including racist abuse and missiles being thrown," said Horne. "We are therefore surprised to see that two of our players have been given suspensions. We shall await Uefa's reasoning but it is our intention, at this stage, to support our players and appeal these decisions."
The case was seen as a pivotal one for Uefa at a time when its avowed "zero tolerance" approach to racism has come under severe scrutiny. Within 24 hours of the tie in mid-October the FA presented a formal complaint to the European game's ruling body cataloguing "numerous instances of violence and abuse".
Racist abuse was aimed at England's black players throughout the match – and was reported to the referee at half-time along with evidence of missiles being thrown – before reaching a climax at Connor Wickham's last-minute goal. Despite risking inflaming tensions by saying in the immediate aftermath of the incident that it "absolutely refutes and denies that there were any occurrences of racism", the Serbian FA later pre-empted Uefa by banning two players and two coaches.
The FA chairman, David Bernstein, and the sports minister, Hugh Robertson, both wrote to Uefa's president, Michel Platini, to protest in the strongest possible terms and call for tough sanctions and later reiterated their stance in face-to-face meetings with the Frenchman. Robertson said on Thursday night: "I am disappointed in the punishment that has been handed to the Serbian FA given the widespread racist abuse that England's Under-21 team suffered that night. Racism is completely unacceptable and we need tough sanctions to help combat it."
Criticism of the decision was not limited to the domestic game. Piara Powar, director of Uefa's European anti-racism partner Fare, said it was "disappointed in the totality of the sanction". He added: "The original offences warranted a more severe collective punishment than a ban on spectators for one match. This is a moment in which leadership to challenge discrimination is needed from all authorities. This sanction falls short of that objective."
The incident came at a sensitive time for Uefa, on the eve of its annual week of action against racism and in the midst of trenchant criticism for being too lenient in previous cases of racism.
The Serbian FA, which has been involved in a string of incidents in which fans were accused of racism, admitted the sanctions were "a final warning". Its secretary general, Zoran Lakovic, said: "Though this case followed a very large media campaign, I do not think the members of the Uefa control and disciplinary commission were influenced by that. I believe that this is a final warning to all of us who work in Serbian football, including coaches and players and fans, because for even the smallest mistake Uefa can now impose the most rigorous punishment."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © House of Joy Photos