During Tuesday’s Champions League action, players from both teams in the Paris Saint-Germain vs. Istanbul Basaksehir match walked off the field in the 23rd minute in protest of an accusation of racism against the fourth official, Romanian referee Sebastian Coltescu.
The incident was sparked by a red card to Basaksehir’s Cameroonian assistant Pierre Webó, who was arguing a decision when he got ejected. The main match referee, Ovidiu Haţegan, reportedly asked Coltescu who should receive the red card, as he was closest to the coaching benches. According to Reuters, Coltescu responded in Romanian, “The black one over there. Go and check who he is. The black one over there, it’s not possible to act like that.” In Romanian, the word for “black” is “negru.”
This exchange between the referees infuriated the Basaksehir bench, with both Webó and Demba Ba immediately yelling at Coltescu in protest, presumably interpreting “negru” as a slur. Webo was heard repeatedly asking “Why you say negro?” in English while coaches and players separated the Basaksehir bench from the ref.
Eventually, the entire Istanbul squad walked off, and PSG’s players followed suit. Center back Presnel Kimpembe was heard on French television saying, per Get French Football News, “WHAT? WHAT? Is he serious? We are heading in. We are heading in. That is it, we are heading in.” Striker Kylian Mbappé was overheard saying “We cannot play with this guy.”
Play was initially delayed as match officials sought to remedy the situation. UEFA offered to restart the match by removing Coltescu, which the players agreed to. However, when it became clear Coltescu was to be moved to the VAR booth and replaced by one of the VAR refs, both groups of players objected, saying they would not play if Coltescu had any officiating role for the rest of the match. Eventually, UEFA announced that the game would pick up Wednesday where the game left off, with a new officiating crew. Today, UEFA announced that it had rescinded Webó’s red card.
As is often the case in matters of communication across languages and cultures, this situation is incredibly complex. On one hand, as the referees tried to explain to the members of Basaksehir and PSG, “negru” is not a slur in Romanian, but rather a neutral descriptor. Under a charitable, totally plausible interpretation of events, Coltescu did nothing wrong and simply identified Webó by his skin color, which presumably is different than that of the other Basaksehir coaches.
However, that doesn’t mean Webó was necessarily in the wrong, either. Even under the charitable interpretation, it was clearly legitimately jarring for both Webó and Ba to hear the word “negru,” which sounds a lot like the word “negro,” which in certain contexts is indeed used as a racial slur. Especially in European soccer, where racism on pitches runs rampant, it’s understandable why Webó would be sensitive to what he could honestly misinterpret as racist language. And, less charitably to Coltescu, it is also totally plausible that Webó correctly noticed in Coltescu’s tone and body language an intent to use “negru” in a derogatory way. Even in English, where “black” is not itself a slur, “black” can be and often is used as a slur, and you know it when you hear it.
(The whole matter calls to mind the Luis Suárez-Patrice Evra situation from 2011. Evra, a Frenchman, was talking trash with Suárez, an Uruguayan, using his limited Spanish vocabulary. During this, Suárez started referring to Evra as “negro.” Evra interpreted this to be racist abuse, while Suárez insisted it wasn’t, since “negro” in Uruguay has no racial connotation and essentially just means “dude.” The English FA sided against Suárez, fining him and suspending him for eight matches.)
While interesting from a linguistic and cultural perspective, the question of whether Coltescu was or was not being racist to Webó is the less important one. More important is how the players themselves reacted, with all members of both teams walking off the pitch in solidarity with Webó and each other. In an age where FIFA and UEFA and individual leagues and clubs spend millions to advertise their abhorrence for racism, while only “combatting” it with the most superficial, cosmetic measures, here were a collection of players who all by themselves decided that when they perceived racism, they would actually do something about it. It is unclear at the moment whether Coltescu really did anything wrong, but it is perfectly evident that the Basaksehir and PSG players did something right.