FIFA's abolition of its anti-racism task force was denounced as a shameful betrayal on Monday as the governing body went on the defensive to reaffirm its commitment to fighting discrimination.
The Associated Press revealed Sunday that the anti-racism group was being dismantled after FIFA decided that its mission had been completed after three years.
Kick It Out , English soccer's anti-discrimination organization, said it was "perplexed" by FIFA's decision, given the World Cup is being staged in 2018 in Russia "which is notorious for racism and abusive activities towards minorities."
Jordanian federation president Prince Ali said he found it "incredibly worrying" that the task force was being scrapped given the "very real and apparent" discrimination problem that remains in soccer.
"The fight against racism is far from over and the notion that the current FIFA leadership believes that the 'task force's recommendations have been implemented' is shameful," said Prince Ali, a former FIFA presidential candidate and FIFA vice-president. "Now the idea that FIFA believes that it's the right time to disband its anti-racism task force is ridiculous."
Prince Ali believes the task force should have been empowered to work further with soccer authorities and governments to use the sport to tackle discrimination in wider society.
"There is still so much work to do, and FIFA must show leadership, take responsibility for reform and be accountable if change isn't put into practice," Prince Ali said.
"Transparency, trust, credibility and integrity are the values that should run through everything FIFA does. Not tackling the plague of racism and discrimination properly is an absolute betrayal of those values."
The task force was established in 2013 by then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter and headed by Jeffrey Webb, a vice-president of world soccer's governing body until he was arrested in 2015 as part of the American investigation into soccer corruption.
Webb, who pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, was replaced in September 2015 as task force chairman by Congolese federation president Constant Omari.
"The reality, as with many programs within FIFA, is that the task force was never given real support since its conception and its role was more about FIFA's image than actually tackling the issues," Prince Ali said.
FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura fended off the criticism, insisting her organization remains committed to combatting discrimination in the world's most popular sport.
"The task force had a very specific mandate that to our knowledge it has fully fulfilled," Samoura said at the SoccerEx convention. "Its recommendations have now been turned into a program and a strong one."
Samoura was appointed in May as the organization's first female and first African top administrator of world soccer's governing body as part of the overhaul under Gianni Infantino. The Senegalese former United Nations official said her "presence here is a strong testimony that for FIFA, it is a zero tolerance policy" on discrimination and it is an inclusive organization.
Responding to criticism of the task force being shut down, Samoura said, "We can live with perceptions, but we are taking very seriously our role as the world governing body of football to fight discrimination."
Kick It Out urged FIFA to publish a "clear and concise strategy" on its fight against discrimination and promotion of equality. It was one of three organizations in the running for FIFA's new diversity award , which was won by Indian organization Slum Soccer at a ceremony in Manchester dominated by questions to Samoura about the anti-racism task force.
Although racism is no longer rampant in English soccer, 402 incidents of discrimination were recorded by Kick It Out last season — up more than 40 per cent from two years earlier, although reporting mechanisms have been enhanced.
"There is clear evidence that discrimination, prejudice and hate are on the rise in developed societies, particularly in Europe but also in different forms across the world," Kick It Out said in a statement. "Football should seek to lead the way in combating such intrusions.
"It is clear that organizations that are actively campaigning against racism and discrimination will be deeply disheartened to hear news of the disbandment, as they look to FIFA for leadership in a game which is so popular across the world."
The pressing problems for FIFA are in Russia with less than nine months until the country stages the Confederations Cup, the warm-up event for the 2018 World Cup.
Earlier this month, European soccer's governing body, UEFA, ordered Russian club Rostov to close a section of a stadium for a Champions League game as punishment for the racist behaviour of fans.
The most recent research from the Moscow-based SOVA Center and the UEFA-affiliated FARE Network reported a surge in the number of racist displays by Russian soccer fans, with most cases going unpunished. Researchers logged 92 incidents of discriminatory displays and chants by Russian fans in and around stadiums in the 2014-15 season, compared to a total of 83 for the previous two seasons combined.