“We are all Koulibaly”: the Napoli defender’s fight against racism and the context of calcio’s problems

“We are all Koulibaly”: the Napoli defender’s fight against racism and the context of calcio’s problems

Niente Capri

Kalidou Koulibaly looks down with his head in his hands, exiting the San Siro pitch and heading towards the players’ tunnel. Disgusted, disappointed and unfamiliarly distraught, he’s just been shown a second yellow card after sarcastically applauding the referee for his decision to book him for a foul on Matteo Politano. It takes quite a bit to unnerve this calm, mature young man, but everyone has a breaking point.

In life, some choices we make of what we haven’t done are more critical than what we have acted upon. Referee Paolo Silvio Mazzoleni chose not to halt the match, even after the Partenopei defender asked Mazzoleni to interrupt play; three warnings were sent over the loudspeaker to the crowd, and manager Carlo Ancelotti pleaded for its suspension. The incessant racist chanting and monkey noises rained down upon the pitch, leaving one of world football’s stars distraught, questioning the moral consciousness of some humans. 

UEFA later criticised Mazzoleni for “failing to respect anti-racism protocol”, while FIFPro also condemned the event as “unacceptable” and having “no place in football”. At such a difficult time, when the major entities of football were disgusted with the situation, home supporters, players and celebrities came to his emotional aid. In his next match back, cutouts with his face and posters reading “Siamo Tutti Koulibaly” (We’re all Koulibaly) were distributed throughout Napoli’s San Paolo.

Having spent several years in AC Milan’s youth academy, former African Footballer of the Year and Premier League Golden Boot winner Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sent a message to the Senegalese, stating: “Hopefully we find a way to kick it (racism) out.” Later on, a Snapchat video showed an English supporter hurling abuse towards Koulibaly in Napoli’s match against his club, Arsenal. Cristiano Ronaldo commented: “You always need education and respect in the world and in football.”

Salvatore Esposito, actor in notorious crime drama Gomorrah – and fellow Neapolitan – also came to his side, posting a heartfelt message on social media. Koulibaly was gracious for the outpouring of affection, noting that there are “good people too” and that he prefers to focus on “the people who support [him]”. 

Internazionale would ultimately be handed a two-match ban by the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC), which was negotiated to allow young boys and girls involved in football programs to occupy the stadium instead. Ironically, Koulibaly was also suspended for two matches after his appeal was rejected. Napoli were appropriately outraged, with the club publicising an official letter: “Tonight a great opportunity has been missed. We have unfortunately confirmed that there is a lot to do and a lot to change.”

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Such personalities in solidarity are the role models calcio needs, yet the historical basis of racism in Italy’s most volatile minds demonstrates an ingrained mentality that will take a profound effort to overcome. In front of an international audience and organisations that demanded social justice, the inaction of the referee and nominal punishment by the FIGC revealed a structure that was unwilling to part from its past, and therefore the most recent death of Italian football.


Tu T’e Scurdat’ ‘E Me


When social tragedies such as Koulibaly’s occur, there is uproar across news outlets and social media that might last for days, maybe even weeks. They become fleeting moments of social upheaval, but rarely develop into any substantial changes in sporting policy.  While FIFA’s Say No to Racism has implemented a three-step procedure in case of discriminatory incidents, such protocol has seemingly been disregarded in Italy – a country that has seen its football grounds become a sort of extreme political theatre since the past 30 years.

The basis of racism in Italian football is multifaceted. A country of Campanilismo – a proudness of one’s own territory and disdain of outsiders – is a notion supported by how quickly a dialect can change from city to city, or even across towns. Italy is a country with a history unlike other European colonial powers and, in turn, follows a unique political dynamic.

By the time Italy earned its independence in 1871, the English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch had already confined the rest of the world. Italy, with significantly less land and much higher population density, was compressed into an eat or be eaten movement, as its diaspora was in full swing. Following the mutilated victory of World War I, Italy suffered 900,000 casualties, but received little territorial reward. This feeling of betrayal against the Allies facilitated Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922. Fascism had seemed the quick answer to a desperate situation.

The barbaric policies of Il Duce’s regime fueled anti-Semitism, while contemporary socio-political events have spurred nationalism and, subsequently, xenophobia. Racial tension grew during the late 1980s, when monkey calls and the unsettling chanting towards black players started to become common. Neo-fascism became an outlet against the corrupt political regime, and the terraces of the fascist era stadia allowed for groups to convene, hoist banners, and conceal flares.

These “private” spaces were fundamental to the politically-aligned cliques, and they offered space for the most extreme members to proliferate their mottoes and testaments. Violence increased as a result.

Nationalism has taken prominence yet again following the waves of immigration from Africa that have flooded Italian shores over the past decade. Thousands of refugees fell into the care or custody of Italian officials, who for several years handled the crisis independently with the marine task force of Operazione Mare Nostrum. The European Union’s Operation Triton later focused only on border security rather than search and rescue missions, even after two shipwrecks in 2015 led to over 1,000 people drowning.  

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Migrants often used Italy as an initial point of contact in Europe, with hopes of spreading throughout the continent to find work. However, as many became bottled into Italy following stricter border control along Austria’s Brenner Pass, they became trapped in a country that had little to offer with a national unemployment rate around 11 percent, and 38 percent in some areas of the south, such as Basilicata. 

As Italy bared the financial burden of processing the asylum claims and immigrant totals reached seven percent of the population, the competition for resources pushed political parties further apart, culminating with the rise of Matteo Salvini’s nationalist Five Star Movement. To say racist chanting has increased since Salvini’s appointment would discredit the recent past for many victims such as Mario Balotelli and Sulley Muntari, yet it has certainly fueled the flames for racists who identify with his party. 

The catalyst to the current political climate came on the day before Italians celebrate their freedom from fascism: Italian Liberation Day. Several months after the events against Koulibaly at the San Siro, a shocking scene was taking place near Milan.

In Piazzale Loreto, where the dictator and his accomplices had been strung upside down by a meat hook some 75 years ago, about 70 of Lazio supporters led a pro-Mussolini demonstration in broad daylight. The regime that put the country on life support was being revered for short-term answers to long-term problems yet again. Young and old alike, followers who blame their misfortune and socio-economic conditions have turned towards the volatile politics of the early 20th century in hopes of a solution. 

It was the same group that posted stickers of Holocaust victim Anne Frank in a Roma kit in 2017. The omission of their name is purposeful – to avoid giving the group more attention. Salvini commented on Koulibaly’s expulsion, downplaying racism’s impact on the sport: “Now we have a Richter scale for booing. Come on, don’t make us laugh.” In a meeting with sports legislatures the following month, he claimed to be against the suspension of matches for racist chanting, as it could become a “slippery slope”.

He equated the abuse against Koulibaly to “healthy teasing”, noting that fans often chant “Milan in flames” during matches. For Italy’s deputy prime minister to equate the territorial jesting between Italians to the targeting of one’s skin colour represents the intellectual distance when confronting the issue. More so, the lack of validation of the issue will energise future incidents. The only solution will be one of drastic measures, for an FIGC and government that seem all too unwilling to implement them.


Mi Staje Appennenn’ Amo’


In the return leg of the match from the San Siro, Koulibaly and his teammates put in a superb display against Inter. None were more impressive than the defender himself, making one of the greatest goal-line clearances in recent memory. It was a show of character, proving that love and determination always conquer hate.

He’s worked hard – not just physically, but mentally. From being a lanky player with a rough first-touch into one of the world’s top defenders, Koulibaly’s life experiences have given him the drive to be one of the world’s best.

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Growing up in the diverse Kellerman district of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges in north-east France, Kalidou is the son of African parents who migrated from Senegal. In hope of providing a greater life for their family, his parents worked several jobs on top of his father being a manual labourer in a sawmill and his mother a cleaner. These humble roots provided the 27-year-old with the background that will make his career limitless. “My parents were migrants, and I experienced first hand the challenges they had to overcome.”

In addition to the help of his family, Koulibaly credits his positive and headstrong mentality to his friends – those who looked out for him in his neighbourhood – and his teachers, who he graciously noted that he was “lucky to have” after an event that saw him named a citizen of honour in his hometown. 

While he will always have home to thank for the man who he is today, he is now every bit Partenopeo. He’s coming off his best season as well, having won Serie A’s Best Defender award. After half a decade in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, you might even catch him talking in Neapolitan dialect. However, Koulibaly’s abilities will draw offers from the top select clubs of world football. 

If the FIGC does not take drastic measures – and do so quickly – Koulibaly will be left with two options: he could move on with his career to a foreign team that will fight for the greatest glories, or, as an icon of Napoli in a role he never asked for, fight against racism in football. One certainly seems easier than the other.

Post word by the author: The titles of this piece are from a Neapolitan love story, as told by artist Liberato. There’s a reason why Mussolini, his mistress and co-conspirators were executed in the way they were. They had to be hoisted by meat hooks in order to avoid the decimation of the bodies. They would later be beaten, spat at and urinated upon – the only way the Partisans could vent their exhaustion, frustration and sadness following the war that put the country on life support.

Exactly 55 years before my birthday, I became intrigued by this event due to the pain the people of Italy must have felt during his control. I hope that people who support neo-fascism understand that we are all one race, and that the ends never justify the means if it necessitates hurting someone. There is no short-term fix to a long-term problem, which almost always equates to having enough money and opportunity. 

For Koulibaly, I hope and know he will continue to succeed in his career. He’s a superb young man that deserves the best. 

By Wayne Girard @WayneinRome

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