Romanian football official Sebastian Coltescu stands accused of racism over a word he used while acting as the fourth official in Tuesday’s Champions League match between Paris Saint Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir.

Members of the Turkish team became outraged and walked off the pitch in protest — followed by their French opponents. Eventually, UEFA officials elected to postpone the game until the next day. 

Whether the Romanian referee had racist intentions is difficult to say, however. The Romanian term “negru,” which he used to refer to Besaksehir’s Cameroonian assistant coach, Pierre Webo, is not a translation of the deeply insulting N-word in the English language — there is another word for that in Romanian. “Negru” simply means “Black” and is a neutral color designation, which is also used by the anti-discrimination movement “Black Lives Matter.”

However, Csaba Asztalos – the president of the Romanian Council for Anti-Discrimination – said in an interview with the sports magazine Gazeta Sporturilor: “Coltescu simply doesn’t realize that the expression ’negru’ is racist, with no other possible interpretation. This shows his level of knowledge and that he is completely unaware of the very clear rules of the FRF (Romanian football association), UEFA and FIFA regarding racism.”

The Romanian minister of sport, Ionut Stroe, declared the morning after the abandoned match in Paris that the Coltescu incident was “an individual case that is not representative of Romanian sport.” 

”There are plenty of problems in Romanian soccer, but you can’t say that our fans are racist,” Romanian Football Federation President Razvan Burleanu said last year. 

However, for anybody who follows Romanian football, there can be no denying that racism and xenophobia continue to be a major problem in the game there. 

Let’s start with the situation in the stands: For decades, chanting against ethnic minorities has been commonplace. Among the chants most often heard are: “We have and will always have an aversion to gypsies” and “Get out, get the Hungarians out of the country!”   

Right-wing Ultras 

Even the Romanian national team has been affected by the problem. Following racist and xenophobic outbursts at a previous match, UEFA ordered it to play its Euro 2020 qualifier against Norway in October 2019 behind closed doors. A month later, the referee threatened to abandon a match against Sweden in Bucharest after Swedish players complained about racial abuse coming from the stands.

When it comes to racial intolerance, the Ultra groups “Honor et Patria” and “United under the Tricolor” set the tone. Their leaders, George Simion and Cristian David, are also the founders of the radical right-wing Alliance for the Unification of Romanians (AUR) party, which recently won seats in the Romanian parliament for the first time. 

These Ultras have often attracted attention through banners with political, Islamophobic and anti-refugee messages such as “One refugee = one attack” during a game against Serbia. At the same time, fans of Bucharest club FCSB (formerly known as Steaua) from the opposite stand shouted “Serbia, Kosovo, Serbia, Kosovo!” 

A racist owner

Racist outbursts are not only to be heard from the fans, but there are many examples from some of Romanian football’s most prominent figures. 

Gigi Becali, the owner of FCSB, can’t resist tossing racist verbal barbs at rival club Rapid Bucharest whenever he can. His most infamous comment came in 2010, when he said that when Rapid withdrew from the league, the league would become “whiter.” 

Gigi Becali

Gigi Becali, the owner of Bucharest club FCSB, has been guilty of racist remarks

The Rapid fans, who like their team are often called “gypsies,” are themselves anything but a prime example of fair play and tolerance. In 2014 they threw bananas at a Brazilian striker on an opposing team. The reaction of the referee was just as shocking; he showed the player who had just been racially insulted a yellow card.    

Becali’s antagonism of Rapid Bucharest is by no means his only offense. He also banned the song “We will rock you” by Queen from being played in FCSB’s home ground because lead singer Freddie Mercury was gay. He has commonly referred to women as “slaves of the man” and made no secret of selecting players according to religion and skin color.  

An ingrained problem

Such incidents of xenophobia are not isolated. FCSB’s stadium announcer was forced to resign in 2012 after he played racists chants through the loudspeaker — a case that made it all the way to FIFA. 

Former Bundesliga player Laurențiu Reghecampf was the coach of the club at the time. From his days at Energie Cottbus, he would have been familiar with the efforts to combat xenophobia in the stands there. But he did nothing to counter racism on the terraces at FCSB. 

Not only Reghecampf, but also his former teammate at then-Bundesliga club Energie Cottbus, Vasile Miriuta, seems to have quickly forgotten what he experienced in eastern Germany too. As coach of Dinamo Bucharest, Miriuta once referred to a Congolese player from his own team as a “gypsy.”

Rumänien - CS Steaua Bucharest soccer club

Steaua Bucharest, Romania’s most famous club and now known as FCSB, have had to deal with numerous racist incidents.

“That’s what his teammates in the locker room call him,” he quipped. 

Also notable for racist statements is former Dinamo Bucharest and Romania defender Cornel Dinu, who is now part of the club’s management team. Dinu, who is also a former Dinamo coach, once accused a rival club that had just signed a Brazilian player, of having bought a “monkey.”

As a frequent guest on Romanian TV talk shows, he also repeatedly boasted that he was once friends with the late Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as “Arkan,” the Serbian paramilitary commander who was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on 24 charges relating to war crimes. Arkan was killed in 2000 — before he could be brought to trial.

The former mayor of Craiova, a Romanian football hotbed, once said of a player from the Ivory Coast: “When I show him to my daughter, she gets scared! I tell her: Look, a monkey. Look, he speaks!”

After Tuesday’s incident in Paris, the Romanian Football Federation declared that it dissociated itself “from any action or statement with a racist or xenophobic tendency.” UEFA has already announced that a full investigation is underway.