WARSAW, POLAND – Quick question, what's worse: racial abuse or guerrilla marketing?
If you guessed the latter, then congratulations! You work for UEFA.
On Monday, Europe's governing body for soccer handed down a $130,000 punishment and a one-game suspension to Denmark's Nicklas Bendtner. His offense? Slyly pulling up his shirt to reveal an unapproved sponsor message for an Irish betting firm during his goal celebration.
Bendtner -- despite his protests to the contrary -- knew exactly what he was doing. The bookmakers in question admitted as much today when they agreed to pay his fine and said it was "a little bit of fun." As well they should -- they got millions of dollars in free publicity and, as marketing campaigns go, it was a fabulous one. For his troubles, Bendtner apparently got nothing more than a free pair of boxers. He needs a better agent.
Stealth marketing is the bane of folks who run major tournaments. McDonald's has a monopoly on Euro 2012 , but competitors such as Burger King are attempting to crash the party. In this case, the fast-food giant's billboards here in Poland cheekily replace their ubiquitous motif with the phrase: "Sorry, we can't show our logo." People do pay a great deal to be associated with tournaments like this, and they pay for exclusivity.
But when cracking down on a marketing campaign is more important than dealing with pernicious hatred, you know this game's compass is broken, or at least the compass belonging to the people directing orders.
UEFA fined Russia only slightly more ($156,000) for an incident in which 30 of its fans assaulted four stewards at the team's first game in Wroclaw. A six-point penalty for Euro 2016 qualifying was suspended -- declawing it from the start. UEFA has handed out significantly smaller fines to clubs that saw sustained racial abuse of players during their tournaments. Worse, UEFA continues to abet serial offenders.
Astonishingly, Croatia was fined only $105,000 on Tuesday for the racist chants its fans directed at Italy during last week's game in Poznan. This is the third time in four years Croatia has been sanctioned for such behavior -- and the fine fell far short of the punishment the team's own manager had called for.
Croatia manager Slaven Bilic told reporters this past weekend that he wanted to impose life bans on fans found guilty of such chanting. He went on to say, "We are angry at these few crazy supporters. . . . We have to put [in] sanctions and stop these kind of supporters forever."
UEFA has taken some strides, installing monitors from FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe) at every game and quickening their response time to displays of banners and racist chants. What it has not done is made teams actually take the punishments it hands out seriously.
Why would Croatia work to root out the perpetrators when it is clear a marketing campaign riles UEFA more than hatred from the stands? Why would Russia try to stamp out its hooligan problems when the big gun -- being tossed out of a tournament -- is kept in its holster?
There's a reason for this, of course. Advertisers who pay for the tournament sit right next to the UEFA bigwigs that run it. Their complaints get heard first and loudest. Those of us who catalogue the abuse that has been hurled at players with different skin colors or religions are much farther away from the skyboxes and luxury suites. It's another example of how corrosive money has become in this sport -- and it should be one of the most worrying.
When a man is banned for displaying his underwear but a team is allowed to play on when its fans toss bananas at black players, something is seriously wrong. UEFA had an opportunity to take a stand against a problem that is poisoning the game. Instead, it chose to focus on what hurts its wallet.
There's no other word to describe that choice than shameful.