On December 9, 2019, French football side, PSG, hosted Turkey’s Basaksehir at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. It was the last matchday of the group stage of European football’s Champions League and the French were playing for the lead in Group H. The Istanbul-based Basaksehir team was bottom of the group of four. It had no chance to qualify for the next round or rise to third to get the consolation prize of a spot in the Europa League. The game was, in other words, pretty irrelevant, and unlikely to make any international headlines on a night featuring far more exciting matches. But something happened after 13 minutes of action.
One of the assistant referees warned the lead match official about the constant complaints of a man sitting at the Turkish bench. The raucous voice giving the referees a hard time happened to be that of assistant coach and former Cameroonian player, Pierre Webo, a person of colour. Fourth referee, Sebastian Colțescu, identified him with a phrase that was to be the source of much agitation.
“Ăla negru de acolo,” said Colțescu in his native Romanian. This translates in English as “the black one over there” – but “negru” sounds similar to “negro”, and the game was being played with empty stands due to Covid. To Colțescu’s misfortune, the irate man protesting from the side heard what he had just said, and immediately believed a racial slur had been thrown his way, unleashing a storm on the pitch.
Colțescu, the match officials tried to explain, had not intended to disparage Webo. His choice of words was nothing but an attempt to rapidly identify the offender among a group of mostly white people. Besides, the word “negru” does not necessarily have the same pejorative connotation as ‘negro’ or its even more beyond-the-pale cousin, the n-word, in Romanian compared to some other European languages. But the players were not having it. Another black Basaksehir member, Senegalese striker Demba Ba, can be heard in the videos telling the refs: “Why, when you mention a black guy, you have to say ‘this black guy’ … You never say ‘this white guy’.”
Should the referees have had a moment to prepare their defence, they could have argued that Colțescu would have referred to the offender as “the blonde one over there” if Webo had been a blond player sitting among a crowd of brunettes. Or as “the bald one over there”, in case the unruly fellow was the only one on the bench who had lost his hair. They could too have asked Webo and his players to imagine they were not competing in the European Champions League but in the Africa Cup of Nations and the troublemaker was not Webo but a white European trainer. Was it that implausible to picture Colțescu calling him “the white one over there”?
But tensions were running high and the refs did not have the luxury of a fair hearing. The two teams left the pitch in protest at Colțescu’s remark and the Union of European Football Associations, UEFA, in charge of the tournament ordered that the game be resumed the day after with a different referee team.
The events at Parc des Princes immediately made it into the news websites, and predictably caused a frenzy on Twitter, where Turkish autocrat, Recep Tayip Erdogan, suddenly became a champion for racial sensitivity, saying that the remarks against Webo should be firmly condemned.
All this happened on a Tuesday evening. On Wednesday morning the press in Romania and elsewhere was flooded with articles and other reactions condemning Colțescu. One of them came from Romania’s minister of Sports, Ionut Stroe. The minister apologized “in the name of Romanian sport” and added: “We firmly condemn any kind of expression or declaration that can be considered as racist or discriminatory.”
Stroe was clearly condemning Colțescu, but he lacked the courage to act accordingly and commit to punishing hisconduct. As if the facts were not a YouTube search away from anyone interested in examining them, he preferred to wait and see “whether UEFA establishes if it was a case of racism” before taking “the necessary measures”.
But what is the purpose of a Ministry of Sports, if the minister can’t discern for himself in such a controversy involving one of its citizens? What’s the worth of a government that accepts without scrutiny what a body with no jurisdiction beyond a particular professional sport establishes to be the truth in a case affecting its country?
As Colțescu was being abandoned by his government, new details on what uncritical media had already assumed as the Paris’ “racist scandal” started to emerge. In other footage of the match, members of the Turkish staff can be heard aggressively protesting the referees’ decisions in a threatening way that included references to their Romanian nationality (see first video on this link).
In the second video of the linked story, which corresponds to the moments of the fracas over the word “negru”, a Turkish staffer can be heard saying in English: “In my country Romanians are Gipsies”. Not a single one of the players that shortly after boycotted the game to protest Colțescu’s comment took notice of this equally audible and plainly racist remark from the Turkish bench.
On Wednesday evening, the two teams took the knee BLM-style on the pitch while raising a clenched fist before the resumption of the game. Although the UEFA had not yet completed their investigation, Colțescu and the other three Romanian referees were replaced by a new brigade who kneeled down with the players in condemnation of racism. This shows the UEFA fully supported the performance, which can only be interpreted as a condemnation without trial of Colțescu but ignores the racist remarks of the Turkish staffers.
The European football administrative body betrayed any sense of justice again when it decided, with the investigation ongoing, to scrap the red card awarded to Pierre Webo during the incident. By explicitly embracing an overtly ideological cause of a manifestly divisive nature such as the BLM, the UEFA also betrayed its own principle of political neutrality.
The Parc des Princes fracas, however, has also given us reasons for hope. It is true that while some Romanian media made Colțescu their sacrificial lamb, other outlets, such as Universul and Adevărul ran articles defending Colțescu or denouncing the double standards revealed by the racist comments of the Basaksehir bench.
Adevărul also interviewed former football players such as the Romanian coach of Greek side Panathinaikos, Ladislau, or László, Bölöni, who reprimanded the sports minister for apologizing “in the name of Romanian sport” and dismissed as baseless the accusations of racism against the referee. The voices that refused to jump on the bandwagon included former Liverpool star John Barnes. The former English international player tweeted: “Its NOT racist to describe the offender as the black one! We are telling people to call us black.. he doesn’t know his name there are 6/7 coaches standing together all turkish .. 1 is to be sent off, the ref says which one THE BLACK ONE what else can he say to let the ref know?”
Meanwhile, former Senegalese footballer Ousmane N’Doye brokered a reconciliation between Demba Ba and Colțescu, whom N’Doye knew from the years he spent playing in Romania. To the Romanian referee’s aid also came Josep Vandellós, a prestigious football lawyer who has lived and worked in Romania and believes in Colțescu’s innocence. Vandellós reached out to Colțescu and will represent him before the UEFA commission should he be tried on racism charges. “I believe this is a case which deserves every effort,” said Vandellós in an interview with Romanian sports daily Gazeta Sporturilor in which he expressed his “profound” conviction that Colțescu is not guilty.
But whether or not the UEFA – and the Romanian government – formally rules against him, much damage has already been done. As with all the victims of organized, overzealous and disingenuous antiracist outrage, Colțescu has seen his reputation tarnished. The reaction of the Romanian government, and the emphatic condemnation of Colțescu by numerous media outlets in his country and abroad, once more show us how difficult it is to stop the snowball effect of any accusation of racism, no matter how gratuitous and unfounded.
One thing is certain after what has happened to Colțescu. Every referee will now be afraid of the way he communicates with his fellow umpires on the field, as the sin of not fitting the mould of the new moral orthodoxy comes with a heavy price in a context growingly incompatible with any form of spontaneity.
The severity employed to judge the Romanian referee does not serve in the least the very noble cause of fighting racism. By offering certain groups of the population an antiracism ace they can use to their advantage in any unfavorable situation, the supposedly protected minorities become, in the eyes of other people, a perennial source of potential conflict and reputational ruin that is wise to avoid.
This is fertile ground for tensions and mutual distrust between racial groups. It gives real racists, or those simply incapable of empathy in general, an excuse to dismiss as inauthentic every grievance expressed from a minority standpoint. And it provides their unfunny racial jokes and unnecessarily hurtful comments with an undeserved gloss of charming rebelliousness.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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