“Racists keep wondering why we call them racist”: Italian football and the long road to understanding its problem

“Racists keep wondering why we call them racist”: Italian football and the long road to understanding its problem

“Who are you calling racist?” asked Corriere dello Sport on his headline last Friday. One of Italy’s main sports newspapers faced widespread criticism last week after publishing a now-infamous headline ‘Black Friday’, picturing Romelu Lukaku and Chris Smalling in anticipation of the day’s big match between Inter and Roma. It’s was an easy choice to not use players’ ethnicity on their headline, but parts of Italian culture – including its mainstream media – remain far from this obvious but essential thought.

Even if this attitude doesn’t reflect the mentality of most, it’s a problem you can see breathing in stadiums, on the street, in the media and on social media. Not everyone in Italy seems to understand that racism has a great variety of shades. While this headline generated universal contempt outside the peninsula, Corriere dello Sport found support in Italy, where critics were labelled of being hostages of political correctness.

In recent months, Italy struggled to deal with racism, particularly in football. Serie A has again been plagued by incidents this season, with Lukaku and Mario Balotelli among those abused by supporters during games. An Italian TV pundit was recently sacked for saying the only way to stop Lukaku was to give him “ten bananas to eat”. Racism also affects youth football in Italy, where the Observatory on Racism in Football recorded over 80 cases in the last two seasons alone.

This gloomy landscape clashes with the thrilling start to the Serie A season. In the race for the Scudetto, Juventus and Inter recently renewed their historic rivalry while thriving under new managers Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte. Their last matchday was a crucial one. Inter, who were one point clear atop the table, hosted Roma, in fourth, while Juventus travelled to the Stadio Olimpico to face Lazio, sitting pretty in third.

In a similar scenario, we had the most dangerous, perhaps astonishing, kind of racism, the one directly spread by media. Lukaku and Smalling reacted strongly to the Corriere dello Sport headline, players described first by their ethnicity, and then by their footballing talents. The Belgian striker wrote on his social media that it was “one of the dumbest headlines” he had ever seen, adding that the paper keeps “fuelling the negativity and the racism issue instead of talking about the beautiful game that’s going to be played at San Siro between two great clubs”.

It generated a similar reaction by Roma’s defender: “What occurred this morning was wrong and highly insensitive,” said Smalling in a statement on Twitter last Thursday. “I hope the editors involved in running this headline take responsibility and understand the power they possess through words, and the impact those words can have.”

However, after refusing to apologise, Corriere dello Sport’s notorious editor-in-chief, Ivan Zazzaroni, made things even worst with Friday’s headline: “Who are you calling racist? – Lynching a newspaper that for a century has been defending freedom and equality.” It’s a curious choice, the word “lynching” to refer to an accusation of racism, and the lack of awareness about the importance of words was spread all over Zazzaroni’s editorial. Among some of his statements, there were: “Armies of politically-correct-thinking people who whitewash their beautiful souls” and “White, black, yellow: to deny difference is the typical macroscopic glitch of antiracism’s racism.”

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It’s not the first time Zazzaroni has demonstrated such inappropriate behaviour. Last July, after learning about Siniša Mihajlović’s leukaemia, he decided not to wait for the Bologna’s manager’s public announcement and published the news on Corriere dello Sport. Afterwards, Mihajlović said that Zazzaroni “ruined a 20-year long friendship to sell 200 more copies”.

On each of these occasions, Zazzaroni has found connivance in the Order of Italian Journalists president Carlo Verna, who defended his conduct. “Everything Lega Calcio hasn’t done against racism,” said Verna, enacting the typical Italian play of pointing the finger at the other, “is now being translated in an exemplary disqualification of journalists who have no responsibility, given that their supervisors even made a mistake.” Even if Verna used this element to minimise Zazzaroni’s misconduct, he went on to suggest that racism is, in fact, not in existence within the boundaries of the Italian football authorities and fans.

Two weeks ago, all 20 clubs from Serie A wrote an open letter to ask for help in dealing with racism. Nevertheless, just Roma and Milan (who wasn’t directly involved in the episode) reacted to the headline, banning the newspaper’s reporters from visiting their training grounds for the rest of the year. Roma and Milan were also the only two clubs that publicly distanced themselves from the disgusting anti-racism campaign launched by Lega Calcio this week.

Serie A installed three paintings featuring monkeys – supposedly representing “a western monkey, an Asian monkey and a black monkey” – at its headquarters to “spread the values of integration, multiculturalism and brotherhood.” The anti-discrimination monitoring group Fare called the painting “a sick joke” and “an outrage”.

“Once again Italian football leaves the world speechless. It’s difficult to see what Serie A was thinking,” stated Kick It Out, adding that “Serie A’s use of monkeys in their anti-racism campaign is completely inappropriate, undermines any positive intent and will be counter-productive.” Every time Serie A tries a new strategy to combat racism, it make the situation worse.

The only thing that they should underline is their lack of understating regarding what actually constitutes racism. Episode after episode, their position is becoming more embarrassing, and they fail to comprehend how they are poisoning the well. Luigi De Siervo, Lega Serie A’s CEO, defended the monkey painting, saying, “We’re going to do in two years what Thatcher did in ten,” referring to the battle against hooliganism in English stadiums in the 1980s. Two days later, he reneged and withdrew the art. A lack of understanding – again.

In September, Lukaku suffered a protracted flow of monkey chants by home fans as he prepared to kick what would turn out to be a match-winning penalty against Cagliari in Sardinia. After the episode, the club defended its fans in a statement, “firmly rejecting the outrageous charge”. Even Inter’s fans confronted Lukaku.

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An organised fan group from Curva Nord, L’urlo della Nord, wrote a grotesque open letter to Lukaku: “Please consider this attitude of Italian fans as a form of respect for the fact they are afraid of you,” said the Facebook post, sustaining that the use of racist comments did not mean fans were racist but that they were just trying to help their team. Then the supporters tried to indoctrinate Lukaku, saying that he had “to understand that Italy is not like many other European countries where racism is a REAL problem.” It’s a statement that hasn’t aged well.

Following an investigation, the Italian sporting justice panel decided to avoid applying sanctions upon Cagliari, stating that the chants could not be considered discriminatory in terms of their scale and perception. It remains a disgraceful decision, especially considering that Cagliari’s fans have previous in this regard.

Last season, young Juventus striker Moise Kean – now playing for Everton – was subjected to similar abuse. Cagliari president Tommaso Giulini said any abuse aimed at the Juventus striker had nothing to do with racism. Kean’s coach, Massimiliano Allegri, and one of his teammates, Leonardo Bonucci, blamed the young striker for provoking it. Kean simply stood in front of Cagliari’s fans with his arms outstretched after scoring a goal.

Similar accusations have also been aimed at Mario Balotelli throughout his career. However, last month he succeeded in the difficult process of reconciling the great part of public opinion that has always opposed him: none of his detractors argued about Balotelli being the latest victim of Verona’s far-right ultras.

In November, the former Manchester City and Liverpool striker was subjected to monkey chants during a match at the Bentegodi. Balotelli reacted angrily, kicking a ball into the stands, then threatened to leave the field when the match was suspended for several minutes. After the match, Verona’s manager Ivan Jurić and president Maurizio Setti downplayed the event, saying that there was no racist element involved. A sports judge disqualified Verona’s Poltrone Est – the sector where the chants began – for a match, but after the club’s appeal, the decision was suspended pending further investigation.

After the match, Luca Castellini, one of Verona’s ultras chiefs, said in an interview with Radio Cafè that Balotelli, who was born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents before being given up for adoption, “is Italian because he has Italian citizenship, but he can never be completely Italian.” Castellini, who is head of the northern section of Forza Nuova, a far-right political movement, added: “We also have a negro in our team who scored yesterday, and all of the Verona fans applauded him.” He was banned for ten years by Verona.

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Not long after, Balotelli was subjected to a staggeringly racist comment from his chairman at Brescia, Massimo Cellino, the former owner of Leeds. When asked about the striker, who was facing a troubled period, Cellino stated: “What can I say? He’s black and he’s working to whiten himself but he has great difficulties in this.” The president was clumsily trying to play on the word “black”, which in Italian is sometimes used as a synonym for ‘angry’, and the verb ‘whiten’, which associated with the word ‘ideas’ can mean ‘to clear your mind’. Cellino refused to apologise. 

These reactions to such deplorable behaviour highlight the strenuous efforts to normalise this kind of attitude in Italy. A man has been arrested after being accused of racist abuse during last Saturday’s Manchester derby. After collaborating with the authorities, Manchester City immediately banned him for life. His workplace suspended him too. To expect a similar attitude from authorities, clubs or companies in Italy is still utopian.

People don’t know where to draw a line, especially with regards to key figures in football. They don’t know what is appropriate or inappropriate and what might be racist and what might be acceptable. Last week we had another example of this kind of attitude from former Juventus manager Allegri.

During an interview with Corriere della Sera, Allegri – who is known for impersonating the part of the cynical and conservative coach and often rants against open-minded managers, who he calls “philosophers” – was asked what football is like now that he’s on the outside looking on. His response was a clear example of how so many don’t actually know what constitutes racism in Italian football: “First of all, African players are turning football more physical,” said Allegri.

He used “African players” as a polite form for “black players”, referring to the narrow-minded stereotype of black players having natural athletic superiority, something that has no scientific support, as proved by a great number of studies, but a deep place in Italian – and indeed wider – society and culture. As a result of the nature of the interview, a one-on-one Q&A, Allegri maintained his dangerous stereotype with high social implications without the possibility of a contradictory opinion, unwittingly strengthening the racial bias in the readers’ minds.

“The main problem nowadays is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits,” says American sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in his book Racism Without Racists. “The more we assume that the problem of racism is limited to the Klan, the birthers, the tea party or to the Republican Party, the less we understand that racial domination is a collective process and we are all in this game.”

If it’s true that most of us have some form of racial bias, at the same time we all have tools to identify and defuse them – or at least stop and apologise when they emerge. In Italy, many remain a long way off this form of self-understanding. All the while, the racists keep wondering why we call them racist.

By Maurizio Gaddi @Maurizio_Gaddi

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