BLOG. Racial abuse in the Bundesliga: The sanction dealt with an incident but left the issues unresolved22 January 2021


By Stefan Morlock

Last Friday (15 January) as reports emerged of racial abuse during Union Berlin’s Bundesliga match against Bayer Leverkusen, the DFB control board launched an investigation; on Thursday (21 February) the DFB took a decision, banning Union defender Florian Hübner for two matches with a €20.000 fine. The player issued a statement accepting the ban although he denied racism.

The incident and the actions of Hubnner and others provide a case study in how an incident can be dealt with and ‘managed’ but leave the underlying issues unresolved.

In the last minutes of Union’s late 1-0 win, Leverkusen and Germany midfielder Nadiem Amiri, who was born to Afghan refugees, approached Hübner to confront him. After the final whistle, Leverkusen and Germany defender Jonathan Tah, himself of mixed German and Ivorian heritage, told broadcaster DAZN that a Union player had racially abused Amiri referring to his Afghan background. Tah said he had not heard the alleged racial slur himself.

“It doesn’t belong on the football pitch, no matter how emotional things get.” Tah said. “It’s the most bitter part of the evening. I hope there are consequences.”

Neither Tah nor Amiri named the suspected player. Later that evening, Amiri’s brother posted on Instagram: “Respect Florian Hübner!!! To say “f****** Afghan” to my brother in a Bundesliga game and thus attack our origin is a shame. I have no words.” Nadiem Amiri shared the post, but later deleted it.

At first, Union Berlin reacted quickly and appropriately to the incident. Union head coach Urs Fischer promised to address the issue immediately. Spokesperson Christian Arbeit emphasised the club’s anti-racist position and apologised for the insults. On Saturday, Amiri said on Leverkusen’s website: “He came to me in the changing room after the game. There were ugly words on the pitch said in the heat of the moment, that he’s very sorry for and therefore the matter is now dealt with for me.”

However Union Berlin’s position seemed to change after the DFB announced an investigation. The day after the match, Union managing director Oliver Ruhnert played down the incident in a press conference: “As far as I know, this expression was not used. I think that too much has been read into it and I don’t think we can speak of a racism scandal. In the heat of battle, things can be understood differently to how they were said.”

Ruhnert then made what he must have felt was a decisive argument in favour of his player: “It’s difficult to speak of racism with the player in question. It’s well known that his wife is not white, so it’s difficult to accuse him of that.”

At around the same time, archconservative politician Friedrich Merz, running for the Christian Democrat (CDU) leadership to replace Angela Merkel and who has repeatedly been accused of misogyny, seem to refer to the incident saying: “If I really had a ‘women problem’, as some people say, my daughters would have already shown me the yellow card – and my wife wouldn’t have married me 40 years ago.”

The self-defence device Merz uses is based on the same misbelief referred to by Oliver Ruhnert. The idea that Hubner’s non-white wife protects him from the allegation that he made a racist comment is as misguided as Merz’s belief that because he has a wife and daughters he cannot be sexist.

In issuing their judgement the DFB said, “Evidence of a racially motivated or discriminatory act could not be provided. The sports court is also aware that on the day after the game, Hübner and Amiri mutually apologized for their respective misconduct and assured mutual appreciation.”

Any case in which any player alleges abuse by another will be contested, evidence is hard to find. The DFB did not indicate if they had studied TV footage or used lip readers to determine what was actually said, this should be the normal practice in a case as high profile as this.

On the other hand the DFB have sanctioned only one player in the incident, this suggests they believe there was racism but in the absence of objective evidence are happy to call it “unsportsmanlike behaviour”.

The DFB are to be applauded for not allowing the regulation to stop them taking action to deal with a serious issue. But the gesture leaves the case, and the issues of racism at the heart of it, unresolved . It is difficult to know what the player was apologising for and why he accepted the sanction if he was not guilty of the offence.

Neither Florian Hübner or Union Berlin come out of this incident well. But more than anything the incident shows young Germans like me that we have a long way to go to bring about the changes we want to see in our diverse country.

German society, German football, our institutions and our people all have a responsibility to deal with racism, to call it what it is, and recognise the way it plays out in difficult and complex situations. We need to be sure of the social and legal means in place to address it.