PARIS: A stadium employee displays a banner reading 'No to Racism' in an empty grandstand before the UEFA Champions League group H football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Istanbul Basaksehir FK at the Parc des Princes stadium. - AFP

BUCHAREST: As the dust still rises on football's night of racist accusations in Paris, the battlelines are being drawn in Romania, home of the fourth official whose use of the word "negru" prompted a player walk-off during Basaksehir's Champions League match against Paris Saint-Germain.

While some believe that Sebastian Coltescu and the comments he made were the product of linguistic misunderstanding, others feel that it is simply emblematic of a society riddled with racism and homophobia. This is what happened. In the 14th minute of Tuesday's game, a touchline argument broke out over accusations that Coltescu had described Basaksehir's Cameroonian assistant coach Pierre Webo as "negru", the Romanian for "black". "It's the black over there," he said.

That has become the key line of the debate, the one that led to Basaksehir's Senegalese forward Demba Ba remonstrating with the official in English. "When you mention a white guy, you never say 'this white guy', you just say 'this guy', so why when you mention a black guy do you say 'this black guy?'" he can clearly be heard saying. The players walked off, returning the next day with a different set of officials to finish the match, since when sportsmen, sociologists and linguists from Romania have been analysing every word from every aspect with every nuance.

In Bucharest, many voices are calling for patience until governing body UEFA releases its findings. On social networks, however, there is broad criticism of the European football authorities and suggestions of double-standards for not having reacted when Romanian sportsmen have been referred to as "Gypsies" - a pejorative term designating the Roma. But the President of the Romanian Football Federation (FRF) Razvan Burleanu is firm. "These words have no place in a stadium," he said. Ditto for Sports Minister Ionut Stroe, who quickly presented his "apologies in the name of Romanian sport".

In the local media, however, opinions are divided. "In Romanian, to say that someone is black ('negru') is not an offense, but a reference to the color of their skin, a simple precision," said veteran sports journalist Ovidiu Ioanitoaia. His younger colleague Theodor Jumatate, however, takes a different view. "It is the most brutal expression of racism, the very essence of humiliation," he says. President of the anti-discrimination Council (CNCD), Csaba Asztalos, stressed that "sport, and football in particular, cannot be immune to this very present scourge of Romanian society".

Asztalos is getting used to these matters with other incidents of supporters imitating monkey cries or throwing a banana in the direction of a Brazilian player. In an interview with AFP, he denounced the "laxity" of the clubs and of the Romanian professional football league (LPF). In neighboring Bulgaria, similar incidents punctuated a qualifying match for Euro 2020 against England in October 2019. The subsequent fall-out led to Bulgaria coach Krasimir Balakov resigning along with the country's FA chief, Borislav Mihaylov.

Several Bulgarian clubs, as well as the national team, had previously been sanctioned by UEFA for "racist behavior" in the stands. In 2014, Levski Sofia supporters openly defied a campaign by the European body by deploying a banner proclaiming "Say 'Yes' to Racism". In the Balkans too, monkey noises and racist chants have repeatedly earned the Croatian, Serbian and Montenegrin federations fines and closed-door matches for the respective national teams.

If the Croatian federation regularly condemns such behavior, sometimes accompanied by Nazi chants, it also throws the blame entirely on "hooligans". In 2012, Belgrade was the scene of a mass brawl at the end of an U21 Euro qualifier between Serbia and England. Serbian fans, who had been monkey chanting England's Danny Rose, invaded the pitch while players and management of the two teams exchanged insults and blows.

Roma targeted
In Romania, analysts say the main targets of hate speech are the Roma. Gelu Duminica, a sociologist from the Roma minority, bridles when supporters chant "Death to the Gypsies" or brandish placards paying tribute to the pro-Nazi Marshal Ion Antonescu, who had advocated the "Final Solution" (extermination) for the Roma during the Second World War.

According to Duminica, the sanctions that have been imposed by UEFA - largely fines and playing games behind closed doors - have partially achieved their goal, as supporters "are starting to fear being penalized". "But coercion alone does not solve the problem as long as it is not coupled with, or rather preceded by, education on the matter," he told AFP. Bulgaria, like other countries in the region, has tightened sanctions against hooligans, now liable to fines of up to 2,500 euros and 25 days in detention. Asztalos says that Romania, for its part, has "made efforts" to combat racism "but there is still a long way to go". - AFP