OPINION: Eradicating Racism Must Become Serie A’s Top Priority

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OPINION: Eradicating Racism Must Become Serie A’s Top Priority

Roshan Natarajan, Senior Editor

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As the Italian Serie A momentarily pauses for its annual winter break, the nation’s football federation, Federcalcio, will desperately seek to repair its image around the world. To say 2019 was a controversial year for Italian football (soccer) would be a massive understatement. Over the past year, a vocal minority within its footballing community has taken Italian racism to new heights. Going into 2020, there is a distinct lack of effective action by Italian football officials regarding this critical issue.

To be clear, racism in football is not a uniquely Italian problem. This year alone, several high-profile incidents occurred all over the world. For example, in September, England’s black players travelling to Bulgaria for a Euro 2020 qualifier match were reportedly preparing to encounter racial abuse. In the end, they were right to do so, because the Bulgarian fans made racist chants and salutes throughout the game as England went on to win 6-0. Similarly, English fans racially abused players like Paul Pogba, Mohamed Salah, and Kalidou Koulibaly in the past year. Even in Bolivia, the black Brazilian player Serginho was attacked with monkey chants by opposition fans. Obviously, this issue transcends national borders and affects all corners of the footballing world — not just Italy.

Nonetheless, Italian fans have committed bizarre acts of racism against non-white footballers this year, especially those of African descent. Not only do these episodes exemplify a footballing culture lacking a total belief in equality, but one whose offenders feel a sense of indignation towards their accusers.

For instance, in April, Cagliari fans racially insulted Moise Kean, an Italian forward of Ivorian descent, after he scored against their team. Following the match, Kean’s Italian teammate Leonardo Bonucci implied that Kean was partly to blame because he provoked them with his goal celebration. Though Bonucci walked back his comments the next day and unequivocally condemned racism, his initial reaction suggests that he can imagine a scenario in which racist abuse from fans is understandable.

In similar fashion, Romelu Lukaku was also subjected to abuse while playing for Inter Milan, again in Cagliari. Fans hurled monkey chants at the Belgian striker, who is of Congolese heritage. Although Lukaku’s teammates came to his defense, this time it was Lukaku’s own fans who sought to qualify the racism he endured. In a public statement, the Inter ultras group Curva Nord claimed that the monkey chants were a sign of respect for Lukaku’s footballing ability. Effectively, the group meant that if it were an opposing striker of similar heritage and ability, they would have made the same gestures.

However, in Italy, the issue of racism is unique in that it has corroded the country’s media and footballing institutions. Whereas incidents in other countries generally involve just fans, racism in Italy has manifested itself beyond the supporters.

Just earlier this month, the Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport published the headline “Black Friday” on their front page to promote an upcoming Friday fixture between Inter Milan and AS Roma. The newspaper featured an image of Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling, two black players of Inter and Roma, respectively. Ironically, the article was meant to praise the two clubs’ active stances against racist behavior in football. Unfortunately, their tone-deaf headline only demonstrated how this behavior is regularly overlooked by the Italian media.

Even the Serie A’s official anti-discrimination campaign embroiled itself in scandal this month. Without consulting any teams in the league, Serie A allowed its social media accounts to publish images of anti-racism posters that featured drawings of monkeys on them. Although the league’s intention was to promote multiculturalism and solidarity, it only further alienated the community’s racial minorities.

Unfortunately, these episodes are not isolated. Rather, they indicate a clear pattern of disrespect towards racial and ethnic minorities in Italian football. Moreover, the reason behind this is evident – Italian football culture has failed to integrate a modern social education for its participants. It is no wonder that Italian coaches like Antonio Conte insist that more education in this area is needed, even though the racist actions come from a small minority of the supporters. However, when the dominant culture permits casual racism — no matter the intention — minority groups will never feel truly accepted. As 2020 approaches, Federcalcio must find a meaningful solution to this problem, or players may seriously consider retired footballer Demba Ba’s calls to boycott the league entirely.

Image Sourced from Fare Network (2013) Under a CC BY-NC License