Racism still a major problem in Italian football

Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles
Inter Milan striker, Mario Balotelli

Inter Milan striker, Mario Balotelli

At the turn of the last decade, the Italian government attempted to take a ‘no tolerance’ stance over the issue of racism in domestic football. The beautiful game was awash with derogatory banners and offensive chants.

Giovanna Merlandi, the Italian minister for culture, instigated a campaign to prohibit the appearance of fascist or racist slogans at football matches. It was seen by many as a potential turning point.

It proved a false dawn.

For years the Italian authorities appeared to turn a blind eye. Cultural racism is deeply rooted in Italian society, not solely football. A country which experiences mass immigration for Africa and Eastern Europe, it has struggled to adapt.

Former Italian Prime minister Romano Prodi famously declared that he did not see a person of colour before attending university. The situation has changed drastically since but it highlights the disparity within Italian society.

Anybody who has lived in Italy for any length of time will have noticed that it is a rare sight to see a black politician or Asians in businessman attire. The common place for immigrants in Italy is on the streets: selling small items such as lighters or offering roses to those enjoying the Italian nightlife.

So is it any wonder that a country with these under lying problems has earned such a poor name for abusing football players of a different ethnic background?

Since 2000, Italian football has taken pigeon steps towards cleaning up its act and eradicating its demons. Fans regularly abuse players with no regard to the unacceptable words used.

A recent example is the torrent of abuse directed at Inter Milan striker Mario Balotelli. The Italian-born forward has been subjected to offensive chants and persistent jeering throughout games.

The attitude of the player, who has Ghanaian parents, hasn’t helped endear him to fans, but nevertheless theatrics on the pitch certainly does not warrant taunting of a racial nature from spectators.

In May 2009, during the ‘Derby of Italy’, Juventus fans continually racially abused Balotelli. There were renewed calls to clamp down on the offending clubs. The Italian Football Federation ordered the Turin club to play their next home game behind closed doors.

At the time, UEFA president Michel Platini slammed Italian football. He urged the IFF not to tolerate racism and emphasised that courage was needed where there was racism in the stands.

Yet it appeared a soft punishment for a club with an abundance of resources and whose fans have a record of racist chanting. Surely if a heavier sanction had been imposed on the Old Lady, it would have acted as a real statement of intent from the football authorities in Italy.

The abuse of Balotelli has continued with the 19-year-old being subjected to further offensive chanting. In a recent away game at Chievo, certain sections of the home crowd persistently jeered him every time he touched the ball. In the same game Inter Milan fans abused a coloured Chievo player, Luciano.

When Balotelli was substituted with two minutes left to play, he made an ironic gesture of applause towards the Chievo fans. It was clear that the 88 minutes of goading had affected the player.

Inter Milan received a €15,000 fine due to the conduct of their travelling fans. Meanwhile Balotelli was chastised by the IFF to the tune of €7,000. No action was pursued against Chievo.

Clearly, the IFF had reverted back to the traditional small fines.

It was a decision which prompted the player to issue an open letter on his website in which he said: “I am tired of always hearing racist chants when I behave on the pitch. It doesn’t happen just at Verona. I was ashamed to hear my own fans booing Chievo’s Luciano.”

Marcello Lippi, the head coach of the Italian national side, was recently asked if racism was present in Italian football. His reply: “In Italy there is no case of racism in football; racism is a problem which isn’t part of our makeup. It’s part of civil society.”

The racism debate has even reached the higher echelons of Italian politics with the Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni suggesting that games should be stopped if there is racial abuse of players from the stands. It is a proposal which UEFA have been keen to support in the past.

It would appear that some of the country’s best football managers and players need to get behind the efforts to kick racism out of the game. The IFF need to take a zero tolerance approach and deliver hard-hitting sanctions to clubs who persistently fail to cut out derisive chanting.

Racism will begin to trickle out of the game, but whether it diminishes due to actions taken by the IFF or as a result of immigrants integrating into Italian society remains to be seen.

At the tender age of 19 perhaps there is still time for Mario Balotelli to become the first black player to don the famous colours of the Azzurri.

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