The shame of Serie A – Racism

Have the kind of slurs Mario Balotelli was subjected to last Saturday night in Turin become acceptable in Serie A?

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Balotelli has done nothing to endear himself to Calcio fans from the start. His attitude and arrogance is incredibly ugly and he doesn’t make for the most likeable guy in Italian football. He has won controversial penalties, had run-ins with seasoned pros and had continuous spats with his own Coach amongst others leaving him at the centre of much booing and taunts when on the pitch. Fair enough – there’s plenty of disliked and unpopular footballers who get a bad reception from opposition fans – El Hadji Diouf and Cristiano Ronaldo spring to mind.

But after opening the scoring at Juventus on Saturday evening, sections of the Old Lady tifosi started singing racist chants and the young Inter startlet was subject to racist abuse all game. Sadly, this incident – although attributed by the club and Media to a small minority in the stadium – was not the first time even this season that such chants have been heard in Serie A stadiums. Roma and Fiorentina have both targeted the Ghanaian born striker with racist slurs in recent weeks yet their punishments were minimal – the Giallorossi were hit with a laughable £7,150 fine for instance.

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It seems the Italian authorities seem content with handing out a slap on the wrist instead of addressing the problem with a view to solving the issue. Juventus President Giovanni Cobolli Gigli commented on his shame for his club’s supporters stating, “In the name of Juventus and the great majority of our fans, I express a firm condemnation of the racist chants against Inter player Mario Balotelli. Together we must try to create a sporting culture which centres on respect for an opponent and the fight against racism.” No arguments there and credit to the Bianconeri supremo for condemning the action of his home fans.

End of issue.

Well, but for a small fine and a few other comments here and there – yes this is the last we will hear of this unfortunate event. This case has indeed seen a harsher penalty handed out to the highest profile club so far to be disgraced by their fans, with Juve ordered to play their home fixture against Lecce behind closed doors, but beyond a brief mention in covering that game, the issue will be forgotten about soon after. Until once more we witness ugly slurs of racism in a Serie A match, to which again the issue is raised and murmurs are heard in some corners and again we move on until time after that.

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It’s an event that happens far too often in the Italian game and for too long have the authorities side-stepped such an important issue. Big names such as Adrian Mutu and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have both faced “gypsy” slurs in the past and Marco Zoro attempted to stop a match after he was so badly abused by Inter’s travelling support – yet very little was done about it by the people in the game who have the power to take action. It is intolerable yet the punishment fails to match the crime and the line must be drawn. Lessons need to be learnt, examples set, awareness and punishments raised.

No one here wishes to crow about the apparent Premier League superiority – last month’s Champions League ties have already seen England claim their dominance over Italy’s great league on the pitch – to patronising and annoying extent. But the Premier League adopted the Kick It Out campaign and has enjoyed metoric success with it and Serie A should arguably look to something similar. After much research and investigating this writer actually came across Dai un calcio al razzism – a Calcio campaign against racism but who of us have heard of it? The website doesn’t look to have been updated since 2007 and the whole idea of such a campaign is to raise awareness and attempt new ways and ideas of tackling the issue. While players like Balotelli are subject to racist abuse you would think such an organization would raise their head and have a say on the issue – bang on a few doors, make themselves heard. But not a whisper.

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Perhaps the idea of some big name players – not necessarily from a diverse background – taking on some responsibility in lending their support to fronting such a campaign, just as the likes of Patrick Vieira, Rio Ferdinand and Dwight Yorke have continually done for the Premier League’s crusade. But there seems very little support amongst fellow professionals of Super Mario when it comes to this issue. Italy’s best and most respected individuals should perhaps stand up and fight his corner. Tell their fans that this is absolutely unacceptable and that if it continues it will forever tarnish this country’s great league and reputation. Some of the players were asked for their comments after the game and of course condemned the abuse, but where are the unprompted calls from professionals in Italy demanding further, definitive action?

A major worry for the authorities in all this is how when these ugly affairs do raise their heads, like on Saturday, there seems to be a astoundingly large amount of fans joining in – its worrying when you realize this isn’t the minority or a few idiots launching such foul abuse. The Marco Zoro case in 2005 saw the army of traveling Inter tifosi launch a tirade of monkey chants from the terraces in which it was clear very few disagreed with their fellow fans and joined in at aiming such horrific chants at the innocent Ivorian. Zoro was reduced to tears and threatened to walk off but it wasn’t the first time the same player had been on the receiving end of racist abuse. Earlier in the same season Lazio fans offered up similar chants and although both incidents were reacted to by the Italian authorities – a five minute racism demonstration at grounds around the country being one of them – there seemed little intention of trying to actually punish the culprits or give the anti-racism campaign a longevity it clearing needed, and still needs, in the peninsula.

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Switch to Fratton Park and the match up of Portsmouth vs. Tottenham last September in which the Spurs fans treatment of former defender Sol Campbell shocked the Premier League authorities. Campbell’s previous with the White Hart Lane club is well known – leaving them for arch-rivals Arsenal in 2001 after much success. But this was no reason for the racist and homophobic chanting that was aimed at the former England international that day on the South Coast. Such a vile display of racism is a major rarity now in England and the authorities acted quickly. Hampshire police were able to issue a number of photos of 16 suspects in national newspapers with many banned and branded ‘a pack of animals’ by the courts. (Some pleaded not guilty and were remanded until May 2009).

The ensuing days to the controversial match saw then Pompey Manager Harry Redknapp and club Chief Executive Peter Storrie condenm such behaviour as well as then Spurs assistant Gus Poyet and numerous fellow professionals speak out over the torrent of abuse. English football spoke out over it’s intollerance and the matter was severly dealt with. The English FA are far from perfect but their stance and support on the racist issue is undeniably stricter than that of the Italians – it was very much a case of stop at nothing in exposing such vile fans and making it known there is no place for them in football.

Where exactly do the Italian authorities go wrong? Maybe bigger punishments would be of benefit but then you ask – Who exactly are we punishing? The club, the fans or the individuals? It’s very difficult to pick out a handful of fans in amongst thousands or ten of thousands of supporters, so if that fails who then do you punish? Playing a match behind closed doors and in affect banning all supporters watching their side play is a punishment for the numerous fans responsible for such racist slurs, but then the victims are everyone else. The club, the (innocent) fans and Italian football as a whole. Fining the club is again of no hurt to the perpetrators and the current minor fines towards clubs make as much splash as a pebble dropped in the ocean. £10 000 would barely pay an average Serie A player’s wages let alone put a dent in a club’s finances. Perhaps, docking points or major fines would carry gravitas to make supporters think twice and force clubs to react more.

One thing is for sure – the current nature and reaction towards the issue has to change. It is still happening on too many occasions and unless the authorities, clubs, players and even the Press change their stance and start making sure they will take this as a big deal and this won’t be quietly opposed and then forgotten. It is unacceptable and it will threaten to tarnish the Italian game if it is to continue. This is the 21st Century – racism is intolerable in every aspect of life and it’s time for the Italian football authorities to finally take it upon themselves to fight this issue head on. It must be eradicated – perhaps Balotelli with the help of fellow professionals can lead the fight. He is one of very few black Italian footballers – success for him on the international stage may well be enough to help kick-start a charge.

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Arguably the problem is far more than just a sporting one. Italy is barely a multicultural society and fascism, anti-Semitism and racism are still major issues in Italian society today. It is difficult to comprehend how deeply racism is embedded in Italian society – black (or those of diverse backgrounds) ministers are almost totally unrepresented in seats of power but football is beautiful thing – let it and perhaps Balotelli lead the way.

No one has said this is an easy issue for the Italian authorities. But sitting back and accepting it is going to happen or hoping it will solve itself is not the way to go about it. Football Italiano doesn’t claim to have the answer but what this writer does know is this – professional footballers should not be subject to such horrific abuse. The sight of poor Zoro in tears was a hideous one. It is time the reason for such images was stopped.

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