Italian football has a unique racism problem and it needs to be singled out.
Racism in European football is a problem that has seen the light of inquiry on a much massive scale since the turn of the decade. Anti-racism campaigners among officialdom and the playing body have turned up the heat on offenders and this is good to see.
But inasmuch as well-minded people seem to feel they are overcoming the evils of white supremacy, we need to understand the cultural underpinnings that prop up this way of life. And Italian football, more than any other stage offers us an opportunity.
To start with, Italian football culture does not accept racism mainly because the understanding of racist attitude is tied to physical violence. Interesting, yes?
Take, for instance, a letter written to Romelu Lukaku, an Internazionale Milan player who had racist chants directed at him from opposing fans who supported Cagliari. Fans of Lukaku’s own team would write to him less than a week later to tell him not to be offended by the monkey chants hurled at him.
Their defence? Monkey chants are non-violent ways of distracting black players while they are on the pitch. Indeed the letter from L’urlo Della Nord, the Inter Milan group asked Lukaku, a black Congolese-Belgian, to see monkey chants as a “form of respect” since he was singled out because he is a good footballer.
The letter then claimed Italy is not “like many other north European countries” who have a “racism problem”. To them, Lukaku’s comments after Inter Milan’s match against Cagliari is actually a bad thing because the player was calling for the repression of football fans.
A classic case of “you are racist for saying that what I am doing is racist”. It is a tactic frequently employed by many who deliberately or otherwise, shut down discussions of white supremacy by pointing out that their actions and words were misunderstood.
It is also worthy of note that according to this line of thought, racism is racism if there is a clear injurious or defamatory affliction to someone.
A report carried on CNN earlier this year makes this point better. Federico, a member of a fan group associated with another Italian football side, Lazio Roma, does not believe he is a racist just because he makes monkey chants at black footballers. Since he is not physically hurting anyone with his chants, he is not bigoted, he believes.
In the story, Federico was quoted as saying, “… I’m not a racist. One day, I was waiting in my car at the traffic lights and, as usual, there was a young female gypsy who was trying to clean the car windscreen and was asking for money. Suddenly municipal police officers started to mistreat the girl. I jumped out of my car and almost kicked his arse. I hate injustice.”
What we see here is that Italian football fandom, overwhelmingly white, is hijacking the narrative on the conception and discussion of anti-black racism. Unfortunately, this has been going on for years.
You can, for a lack of a better word, forgive unruly football fans for employing whatever means necessary to help their teams win a football game. But the problem with Italian football is that officialdom is no better.
When former Ghanaian international Sulley Muntari continuously complained to referee Daniele Minelli that he was being targeted for racist chants – later confirmed by TV reporters – Muntari was shown the yellow card for dissent.
Muntari walked off the pitch, leaving his Pescara team to play the injury time of the game with 10 men to their opponents’ 11. Then coach of Pescara, Zdenek Zeman, felt Muntari “took the law into his own hands” by walking off the pitch in spite of being the target of shameless chants.
In 2014, the president of the Italian Football Federation, Carlo Tavecchio, referred to black players who play in the league over which he presides as “banana eaters” who are given undue opportunities in Italian football. Tavecchio is still the president of the federation.
This is the cultural problem Italy has. And more than any other country with so many black footballers outside Africa, the Middle East or the Caribbean. The commitment of both fans and officials to stick to their perverted ways. It is institutionalised.
The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) have very little say in how Italy manages its football. And it is not as if these bodies are doing much better, frankly speaking.
There are hundreds of black footballers in Italy. They will increase and that is for sure. The opportunities for young men with footballing abilities to feed their families exist in Italy and they will grab it, racism permitting or not.
They will be thrust into spaces where they are viewed as inferior by the virtue of the colour of their skin. But they will have to swallow it up and get on with the game. If they happen to be a bit famous, they will be told these monkey chants are a mark of reverence.
This much has to be said that Italy has to be forced to face its problems. England seems by far, the leading nation in anti-racism efforts in football. But even the most optimistic among us cannot see any other country challenging the Italians to do better.