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Is team’s decision to walk off pitch over racist abuse a watershed moment for soccer?

As soccer’s authorities search for answers in the ongoing fight against racism, the manager of a club in England’s ninth tier decided enough was enough.

The abandonment of a FA Cup game — the tournament is one of soccer’s most prestigious and historic competitions — between non-league side Haringey Borough and Yeovil Town on Saturday, because of racist abuse, marked a potentially seismic moment in the sport’s struggle with racism.

After Haringey’s goalkeeper Valery Douglas Pajetat was reportedly spat at and hit by an object thrown from the Yeovil fans, Haringey manager Tom Loizou led his team, which was trailing 1-0, off the field in the 64th minute.

Just five days before, England’s players had been subjected to racist abuse during a Euro 2020 qualifier against Bulgaria.

The English Football Association (FA) said they were “deeply concerned” over Saturday’s events and were investigating them “as a matter of urgency”, but Loizou’s stand begs the question as to how good a job soccer’s regulators are doing in dealing with the issue of racist abuse.

For journalist Darren Lewis the actions of the Haringey players have set “a new standard.”

“Football has conditioned fans as well as players into believing that the way to beat racist abuse is to play on, complete the game, win the game emphatically,” he told CNN. “To use it as a motivational tool. That hasn’t worked for a number of generations and we should not be using it as a motivational tool now.

“And after seeing the effect on players, are we still going to be thrusting young men into situations like that and basically saying that the result matters more than their mental health and emotional well-being?”

READ: Wilfried Zaha says he’s ready to walk off the pitch if he’s racially abused

A big step?

The FA has ruled that the FA Cup fixture between the two sides will be replayed on Tuesday, October 29.

Over the last year in England, two other games have been abandoned after players left the pitch following alleged racist abuse.

Wymeswold Reserves walked off after a player was abused by a Cosby United Development supporter in April. In October 2018, Padiham FC walked off during a match against Congleton Town in response to alleged racist insults from members of the crowd.

“Black players now have to start leaving the field of play,” said Lewis. “We’ve got to a stage now where black players can no longer leave it to the authorities.

“They’ve done it for five decades, the authorities have come up with all sorts of schemes, all sorts of ways to try to motivate and encourage them but we should not, in 2019, be sending young, black men into any situation where they should expect racial abuse.”

READ: Bulgaria soccer coach Krasimir Balakov resigns after racist abuse of England team

Going one step further

In co-ordination with UEFA’s three-step protocol, England’s game against Bulgaria was stopped because of the racist abuse.

According to the procedure, the first step is to bring the match to a halt and instruct the stadium authorities to call on spectators to stop the discriminatory behavior.

If that goes unheeded, another announcement is made, and the match is suspended with players sent to their dressing rooms for a “specific period.”

Lastly, following consultation, the match will be abandoned “if the discriminatory behavior still does not cease or breaks out again.”

But despite the abuse appearing to continue in the second-half, the players finished the remainder of the game, a decision anti-discrimination organization Kick It Out questioned.

“TV footage also clearly shows that racist abuse continued in the second half, so it is unacceptable that step three was not enforced,” the organization said in a statement.

READ: Serbia punished by UEFA after fans’ racist behavior

Loizou never thought he’d lead his players off the pitch because of racist abuse, confessing that by doing so he’d be admitting defeat.

“(A few weeks ago) there was something going on with Paul Pogba and he urged players to walk off if they got racially abused,” said Loizou, referring to Manchester United’s French international midfielder.

“When I got asked this question four weeks ago, I said there was no way I would walk off the pitch with my players and let these people win.

“Now three, four weeks later, I’ve contradicted everything I’ve said and done a complete U-turn. It was something that happened at the time and I felt I had to act.”

Like Loizou, for Haringey chairman,Aki Achillea, Saturday’s unsavory events were a turning point in his attitude towards racist abuse at football, after being left “mortified” by what transpired.

Achillea admitted that ahead of the game against Yeovil, he “was very much against the idea of walking off” a pitch, and that the idea of following a procedure like UEFA’s protocol is “ridiculous” at the level Haringey play at.

“If you had asked me in the morning, should a team walk off the pitch if they’re racially abused,I would have said no,” Achillea told CNN.

“I was very supportive of the actions England took in Bulgaria because I’ve always felt that you’re giving in if you walk off). They [fans] want to provoke a reaction.

“If you give them an opportunity and they take it, it will encourage others in the future to do the same thing. But having witnessed it first hand, having seen the state of my players when I went into that dressing room, I realized that I didn’t actually understand.

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“I’m Greek-Cypriot, and I didn’t understand. I’ve never been subjected to that form of abuse that they were. So, I support them 100% in what they did.

“There was a lot of talk about protocol that England had to follow. That’s ridiculous at this level. You’re supposed to give them a warning on a public address system then if they can it again?

“You’ve just racially abused players and we’re supposed to give you another chance to do it again?”

CNN

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