The Luis Suarez incident has highlighted how much of a problem racism remains in football.  In Italy, where a new government is consumed by financial issues, there is still much to do and progress is unlikely to occur any time soon.

If gambling and corruption suggest that nothing changes in Italy, its athletes are evidence to the contrary. According to Mauro Valeri, the term ‘Black Italians’ was used to identify and discriminate against emigrant Italians, particularly in the US and Australia. ‘At the same time, but so paradoxically, the same Italians haven’t missed a chance to consider “black and mixed-race Italians” with as much contempt, above all those born and bred in the colonies.’ Having remained an almost totally homogeneous country for over one hundred years, waves of immigration from the 1980s onwards created tensions that have been fuelled by racist politicians, especially among the Northern League. Ironically, it was only the arrival of visible and audible outsiders that encouraged many Italians to establish a sense of collective self. Sport has reflected this change and the racism that accompanies it.

The son of a Somali immigrant, Fabio Liverani’s strong Roman accent discloses his youth spent in the capital’s suburb of Torpignattara. On making his full international football debut, on 25 April 2001, Liverani became the first black Italian to represent the nation. Unfortunately, it was not the first time he had made the news. After he was bought by SS Lazio, in 2001, the walls of Rome and the club’s training ground were daubed with the type of racist graffiti that had ‘welcomed’ the Dutchman Arron Winter, some eight years earlier. One year prior to Liverani’s debut for Italy, the black basketball star Carlton Myers, born in London to an Italian mother, carried the national flag at the Sydney Olympics. Myers suffered considerable abuse on the basketball court, one incident against Varese, in 2003, coming in the presence of Umberto Bossi who feigned ignorance. In response, Rome’s mayor Walter Veltroni wrote a letter of solidarity to Myers:

The idea that a minister of the Republic might have watched an explicit act of racism with indifference, perhaps even some pleasure, makes me shiver even if, unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise me coming from somebody with his record and who only a few days ago referred to immigrants as ‘Bingo Bongo’.

Myers and Liverani nonetheless demonstrate a highly positive aspect of sport: its capacity to confront and challenge racism. Another high-profile black Italian athlete is Andrew Howe, who was born in Los Angeles and moved to Italy after his mother re-married. Naturalized Italian, the long jumper won gold at the European Championships in 2006 and silver at the World Championships the following year. He also joined the Italian Air Force and cut his plaited hair: ‘it changed me for the better. I became more of a man, more mature. I didn’t like [them] anymore because I seemed… an illegal immigrant.’ Although one can imagine that it wasn’t the best look for the Italian military, it was a strange statement.

After Mario Balotelli was insulted in a bar in Rome and bananas thrown at him, when on international duty in 2009, Howe jumped to his defence. But his support of Super-Mario indicated the problem:

I don’t believe it was a racist incident… I want to believe that it was only a gesture of football extremism… If I really must find a reason that isn’t skin colour, it is in some of Balotelli’s unfortunate gestures… I think black has nothing to do with it: if he had been Argentine for example, they would have insulted him in another way.

The Under-21 manager Pierluigi Casiraghi concurred after Juventus fans chanted ‘There are no black Italians’, during Inter’s visit to Turin in 2009. ‘It’s his personality that’s irritating, it’s not racism… He has a big personality but sometimes exaggerates.’ National team coach Marcello Lippi went one step further, or too far, in asserting to 400 high-school students that ‘cases of racism in football don’t exist in Italy’.

One wonders if Balotelli sees it quite the same way. A prodigious and precocious talent, whose northern accent disguises his birth in Palermo, his talent alone is enough to irritate opposition fans. But even if he is prone to the occasional cerebral short circuit, how can the unquestionable racism that he has experienced be his responsibility? There were similar explanations for the abuse of Carlton Myers, while presumably Messina’s Ivory Coast defender Marco Andrè Kpolo Zoro had an equally bad attitude, hence the Inter fans’ abuse of him on 27 November 2005. His response was to take the ball from the pitch in protest, before being persuaded to remain by his fellow professionals. But even they have not always been innocent. On 17 October 2000, then friend of Serbian war criminal Arkan, Sinisa Mihajlovic abused Arsenal’s Patrick Viera during a Champions League match. His public apology to the accompaniment of Lazio fans hissing and whistling was hardly surprising given their infamous banner exhibited during the April 2001 Rome derby: ‘Squad of blacks, terrace of Jews’.

Serie A matches are preceded by warnings of sanctions against racist chanting, which few take seriously. Supporting the severest measures, the ex-CONI president Mario Pescante asked: ‘The suspension of matches? Why not?’ Because there is no political will perhaps? In March 2010, Lazio fans’ abuse of AC Milan’s Clarence Seedorf almost forced authorities to suspend the match; but not quite. But for all its distastefulness, the Balotelli case drew huge attention to one of Italy’s most pressing social issues. It remains to be seen if sport and its leading black figures are able to ease the country through its multiracial growing pains or, alternatively, if it demonstrates how sections of the nation can only define themselves against images of the outsider, thereby exposing their own lack of commonality.

Despite various assertions to the contrary, racism is not just football’s problem. As Il Venerdì di Repubblica’s cover asked in June 2009: ‘Is it not that you’re racist and you don’t know it?’ But Italy’s stadiums do spotlight it, and never more so than the 28 April 1996 when Hellas Verona’s notorious facist element, one of which was apparently a parliamentary candidate for the extreme-rightwing Movimento Sociale Fiamma Tricolore, lynched a black effigy from the terraces in protest at their club’s proposed purchase of the Dutchman Michel Ferrier.  Similarly, in celebration of Lazio going top of Serie A in 1999, the curva nord broke into a rendition of its old Fascist favourite ‘Faccetta Nera’ (little black face).

Discrimination has long been a feature of Italian stadiums, with Napoli fans frequently greeted by chants of Africans and orders to wash, presumably in a fire-bath (bagno di fuoco) from the re-eruption of Vesuvius that extremist fans publicly long for. Certainly an area that would benefit from wider European comparison, a purely superficial glance suggests that Italy isn’t alone in its racist stadiums. Where it may differ, however, is the degree to which racist/regionalist discrimination has been politically motivated.

For anybody who experienced English football in the 1970s and 1980s, the racist abuse, the chants, the bananas and the passing of the buck onto the game and the player is familiar. While racism has certainly not disappeared from English football, the strides made in the last two decades give hope for Italy. Great attention surrounded the first black England international in 1978, but since Viv Anderson’s appearance roughly one in four England debutantes have been black. The first black captain, the former Inter player Paul Ince, was another key moment, while comment about Rio Ferdinand’s appointment surrounded only his fitness and previous suspension for missing a dope test. Through educational programmes in conjunction with the Football Association and club community schemes, the ‘Kick it out’ campaign has had significant impact. Easy targets for anonymous, big mouths in the crowd, with enough support black players have become powerful forces in the campaign for racial equality.

Yet successive Italian governments have shown little enthusiasm for learning from Britain, especially regarding Italian hooliganism. The inquiry following the riot at the Catania–Palermo derby in February 2007, which cost the 38-year-old police chief-inspector Filippo Raciti his life, found that only six stadiums in Serie A and B met minimum standards. Calcio stopped for 22 days before the show carried on. Laughable laws are put on the statute book and rarely implemented, Italian stadiums crumble and the politicians continue to wonder why.

Racism and violence are significant factors in calcio’s current sickness and growing loss of appeal. While ineffective ‘anti-hooliganism’ laws have made obtaining a ticket ridiculously difficult, the game’s general malaise has seen crowds plummet. On the contrary, rugby union’s popularity has swelled. The Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) was formed under Fascism in 1928, and the nation has participated in every World Cup since the tournament’s creation, in 1987. Primarily a northern, minority sport up until Italy’s entry into the Six Nations Championship, in 2000, Rome’s Flaminio Stadium is sold out for internationals, with the New Zealand All-Blacks visit, in 2009, filling Milan’s San Siro. From modest beginnings and some heavy defeats, Italy’s Six Nations performances have generally improved, with a fourth-place finish in 2007 its pinnacle so far.

Initially exploiting the International Rugby Board’s rules on the selection of foreign born players with Italian ancestry, since 2004 the FIR restricted them to a maximum of three, to develop home-grown talent. Unusually for Italy, where sporting expectations are often destructively high, this seems less of a problem for rugby. While the national team’s 2007 Six Nations success drew significant media attention, it was as much about the sport’s image as a model of fair play. Despite losing the last game to Ireland, 10,000 plus fans congratulated the team in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo. Contrasting with calcio’s violence and recriminations, on 18 March 2007 La Gazzetta’s headline declared: ‘To lose like this is beautiful.’ That said, defeating France for the first time in the Six Nations Championship and winning the Garibaldi Cup on 11 March 2011, was presumably even better.

This article is an extract from Simon Martin’s outstanding book Sport Italia published by I.B. Tauris, which comes highly recommended.

If you’d like to but to buy a copy of Simon’s book, you can do so via Amazon.

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AuthorSimon Martin