Embedded racism in Italian football

Last year I was invited to a dinner party by an English friend living in Rome. Among the guests was an Eritrean woman brought up in Italy and now attached to the Embassy of the League of Arab nations. The other guests, all Romans, peppered her with excruciatingly embarrassing questions: what do your family eat at home? Are you really a Muslim? Does that mean you’re not allowed to talk to men? Are you sure you won’t have some wine, it won’t do you any harm? When she left, the Italians all commented on how “delightfully normal” she was. “That’s the first time I’ve ever had an actual conversation with a black person” was the unanimous reaction. “Of course, you see them selling things on the street…but I’d never spoken to one before.”

These people were all educated middle-class Italians in their early forties — architects, university lecturers, lawyers. All blithely unaware of having said anything remotely unacceptable.

Adrian MutuThis episode returned to my mind as I read Martha’s very interesting post over at The Offside: Italy, and the subsequent discussion, on the issue of racism in Italian football. The racist chanting by Parma fans against their former idol Adrian Mutu earlier this month was just one of many incidents which has illustrated that despite years of hand-wringing, racism is an enduring problem in calcio.

As several readers commented, this cannot be separated from the issue of racism in Italian society, any more than violence in Italian football can be considered wholly distinctly from other forms of casual violence. The same paper which reported the (mild) stabbing of three Catania fans outside the Olimipico before kick-off against Roma this Sunday also reported that a group of five youths set upon a municipal policeman who was attempting to enforce a minor traffic law elsewhere in the city, and kicked him into a pulp.

If we want to understand why there is senseless violence among young male Roman football fans, we might also want to consider senseless violence among young male Romans more generally. Nor do I think Rome is in any way remarkable in this regard. Football doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor do football fans; and racism in Italy is sadly not limited to the world of calcio.

A Racist Society?

Italy is not a multicultural society. It is barely a multiracial society. There are no black politicians, business leaders, newsreaders. The largest ethnic minority population is Albanian, chiefly living in the south, followed by Romanian; the largest non-white group is probably Chinese, chiefly visible via ubiquitous restaurants and a huge number of “99cent” shops, selling cheap plastic tat. Immigrant populations of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis can be found in large cities working in menial jobs and playing cricket in dusty piazzas in scruffy areas on summer evenings. The black population is largely visible as vendors of pirate DVDs and fake designer handbags. Non-Caucasian adults are almost always first generation immigrants, not Italians; and they are almost always socially excluded.

Not only is Italy not a multicultural society, but it is frequently a racist one. Racist rhetoric is deployed not only by the numerous fringe neo-fascist political groups but by mainstream rightwing parties, the Lega Nord in particular. Racist and anti-Semitic graffiti is a commonplace sight — looking out of my bedroom window I can see two swastikas and a fasces spray-painted on the building opposite. Gypsies and Romanians are a regular target of racism, as well as being frequently confused with one another. Racist beatings, stabbings and murders are sadly a regular feature in the news. So we shouldn’t be surprised that there is racism in Italian football: quite the contrary, it would be extraordinary were there not.

IbrahimovicAction taken within the world of football isn’t going to radically change Italian society. But that’s not to let the footballing world off the hook, nor to say the football authorities haven’t got a role to play. After all, footballers are among the only black celebrities in Italy, a country obsessed with the antics of the celebrity world, and football is the arena in which Italians are most likely to have any sort of positive contact with people of other ethnicities. This year, punishment for racist banners and chanting has increased, as in Juve’s case after their fans called Ibrahimovic a “foul Gypsy”. But fines hit clubs not fans, and unless they make a greater effort to control their fans’ behaviour the exercise is pointless. A more effective tactic is closing grounds, or a section thereof; this was used against Inter’s Curva Nord back in October and at least directly tackles the people whose behaviour is being punished.

But the Inter incident raises another point. Pre-match announcements via the PA system and big screens remind matchgoers of the legislation against “all forms of racist or territorial discrimination.” The identification of territorial prejudice with racism is a forward-looking move in a land where regional divisions are at times virulently hostile. Napoli fans are particularly likely to be abused, with popular chants including such charming sentiments as “Neapolitan, dirty African, you are the shame of all Italy.” It was for this type of discrimination that Inter were punished, with banners suggesting the visiting Napoli fans were bringing cholera and tuberculosis with them.

But while linking territorial prejudice with more conventional racism is a laudable attempt to tackle the former, I can’t help but think that it merely serves in practice to downgrade the importance of the latter. Most Italians find the regional and territorial stuff innocuous; and the message seems to be “racism is no worse than regionalism”. Of course, the prejudices of the north against the south are borderline racist – elderly Milanese aristocratic types have informed me that “Africa begins south of Florence.” But I think the conflation of the two forms of discrimination may prove counterproductive.

Marc ZoroTaking Action

Institutional efforts to tackle the issue are patchy and uneven. The reaction after the Zoro incident in 2005 was encouraging but all too soon it was business as usual. There is an Italian equivalent of the English Kick it Out! campaign, which indeed shares the same name: Dai un calcio al razzismo. But their website hasn’t been updated since May 2007, and I’d never heard of them before I went hunting for them. The Italian section of the FARE network (Football Against Racism in Europe) makes itself heard only intermittently.

Action is left to individual clubs – like Sampdoria whose players took to the pitch with a banner displaying an anti-racist message last year, while one of the club’s most important ultras groups organised a multi-ethnic fans’ tournament, having uncovered, implausibly, a north African supporters’ club: Maghreb Samp. Meanwhile many left-wing ultras groups, notably under the umbrella organisation Progetto Ultrà, have also organised demonstrations against racism in football.

These projects are worthwhile. But racism is a much wider issue in Italy than the world of football alone. The idea persists that racism is only a problem for those at whom it is directed: it would be good to see white Italians — and white footballers — speaking out about the issue for once. And as time passes and immigrant communities grow more integrated, the casual racism born of ignorance and unfamiliarity will diminish. Maybe, one day, a black footballer will turn out for the Azzurri: possibly Stefano Okaka, Roman-Nigerian. Then perhaps, neo-fascism and anti-Semitism won’t be flourishing in half the curve of Italy, either. But it won’t be easy, and it won’t be happening any time soon.

Photo credits: WeLcoME To mY L!Fe; maurobrock

37 thoughts on “Embedded racism in Italian football

  1. ursus arctos

    Typically brilliant. The point about the conflation of regionalism and racism tending to weaken the latter is particularly insightful.

    Only two comments.

    I wonder if having Okara (or Inter’s Balotelli) become an established member of the Azzurri would have any significant effect. Liverani’s two or three caps certainly hasn’t, and when I read some of the comments directed against Camoranesi (who won the effing World Cup, ffs), I despair (as I often do in this context).

    Credit for finding a picture of both Paddy and Mutu, but my do they look a hell of a lot better in their current jerseys. . .

  2. Martha

    I wrote that post in the hope people like you with much broader knowledge than I would address the issue of racism in calcio, Vanda, I’m so glad you’ve done so. Thanks for bringing your keen eye to bear on it; the broader context makes what happens in the grounds much easier to understand, if not stomach.

    (I know Fabio Liverani has a few caps for Italy, but his handful of appearances are a long way from what’s needed. There’s Okaka, and maybe, there’s Mario Balotelli, if his development continues. My fear, though, is that Azzurri supporters will simply compartmentalize, the way club supporters do when they shout epithets at African player on visiting team while cheering for those wearing their own colors.)

  3. Tom Dunmore

    Ursus, I must take both the credit and the blame for the photos featured.

    Martha, thanks for prompting this entire discussion with your original post. For those of us following calcio even more casually, it’s been extremely informative. And relatedly, we will have a further follow-up post on this soon, from the excellent blogger at Treasons, Strategems and Spoils.

  4. Penn

    Many Italians may find regionalism unoffensive, but the same is true of racism, as the story at the beginning of your column indicates. I think you have to tackle discrimination as a universal concept, otherwise it’s just another form of it.

  5. Brian

    Vanda, this is an eye-opening post. Like several of the other commenters, I found the point about regionalism and racism to be especially interesting. I wonder if one of the insidious aspects of their being so entwined in Italian football might be that football is such a natural engine for reinforcing regionalist prejudices—thousands of people from one place in a stadium with thousands of people from another place, watching “your” team fight for superiority against “their” team—that it adds another current for anti-racist feeling to swim against, if that makes sense. If all prejudice is bound up in the structure of the match itself, then it becomes that much more difficult to work against. Separating racism (which is only incidentally part of that structure) from regionalism (which is more essentially part of it) might have the conceptual benefit of highlighting how little racism has to do with football, and ultimately of loosening the grip of the idea that a football match is a natural place to assert a fundamental group identity against those of other people.

    Not sure if this is too abstract to be useful. But anyway, it’s a thought.

  6. SpanglyPrincess

    Thanks for your comments.

    Brian, you’ll be delighted to hear that your ambivalence about the role of football in promoting regional and/or local identities at the expense of a more integrated sense of citizenship was a major source of concern for no less an enlightened thinker than Mussolini himself. Which doesn’t, of course, mean it’s not a valid point. Mussolini feared that the “idiot localism” of football would undermine his nationalist and nationalising project, and the Fascist reforms of the leagues, leading to the creation of Serie A & B, and the amount of attention they paid to the Azzurri, were efforts to ensure that football was a unifying not a dividing force. On which see “Football and Fascism: the National Game under Mussolini” (Oxford: Berg, 2004) by Simon Martin, who is an acquaintance of mine and knows his stuff.

    As for tackling discrimination: I whole-heartedly agree that it is a universal concept and should be treated as such. In fact I am personally in favour of the (largely ignored) efforts to combat regional prejudice which are being made by the footballing authorities. But I think the way they’ve gone about it is perhaps problematic.

  7. jp2

    I spent a summer there (near Firenze/Florence) and frequently played soccer. I was at a banquet with a local club where they expressed to me their English vocabulary. Few knew any words, but they all knew the word “nigger” and made sure I was aware of it. Disappointing to say the least.

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  9. JMerk

    I’m of mixed race with an Italian father and a Ghanaian mother, and I have to say on my part I have received less racism when playin football in Italy (admittedly only on holidays there to see family) than I have playing at varying levels in London, most particularly in Sunday League. I also think that many bloggers are forgetting about Matteo Ferrari who was in Italy’s Euro 2004 squad. However, I’m not trying to deny that there are clear problems regarding race in Italy, simply that it is not an eradicated problem in Britain

  10. SpanglyPrincess

    Thanks, JMerk, that’s interesting.

    Ferrari and Liverani have made some impact, though perhaps being mixed race, and having “Italian” surnames, has helped a little. But neither is a big star – ideally we need to see an indispensable player along the lines of Henry or Vieira in the Azzurri.

  11. de vertalerin

    Returning to the point about racism and its relationship with regionalism, it’s interesting note that regional prejudices are very often expressed using explicitly racial metaphors, as your example about ‘Africa beginning just south of Firenze’ demonstrates. There’s also a cartoon map of Italy which did the rounds at one stage depicting a vast canal slicing the peninsula in half, with the southern part labelled ‘Isola Nuova Africa’ (capital: Romma). Given this, it would seem that many Italians are both implicitly aware of the racist natuire of their regionalism and perfectly comfortable with it.

  12. Bubba

    I think one of the things about Italy (my wife is Italian) that makes the country a bit more blasé about their attitudes to foreigners is that Italy is still a tribal country. You mentioned the Northern League, well they hate immigrants, they also hate Southern Italians. In fact, the old village and regional rivalries in Italy are fierce, long lasting and strewn with hate. My wife is from Tuscany and if you travel to Siena, you will find out that there are still people inside the city that will not marry or allow their children to marry someone from another contrada (neighborhood). Siena still hates Florence. Tuscany and Northern Italy have a massive disdain for the South. They call them lazy, the call them worse. People in Tuscany know how to swear and it can be fowl. So, maybe this is sort of diminishing racism in Italy a bit, but for Italians to lash out invective at someone from somewhere else is quite natural for them and while many would recognize that what they are doing is wrong, it is a bit more natural for them because of this history of strong tribalism within Italy itself.

  13. Not visiting italy!

    Thanks for this. Sometimes I think about taking a trip to Italy and I forget how they feel. If people really feel strongly they will relegate Italy to the dustbin of countries.

  14. SpanglyPrincess

    good lord… that’s a slightly bizarre reaction. What harmonious multiracial paradise do you live in then? Because if there’s a country somewhere on this planet which has eradicated racism I’d love to hear about it.

  15. matteo

    It’s funny how you white English people complaining about us italians as being racist but isn’t it a fact that you’re actually stereotyping Italians in a racist way. It seems that it’s either poorer Sicilians and southern Italians who are seen as poor, uneducated, violent dagos, and the northern snotty racist arogent Italians. Who’s the racist? It’s true that regionalism does exist and many look down on other people’s regions and citties which is mostly evident in Il calcio, but it also has to do with regional pride and loyalty…something that white anglo europeans and americans are quite ready to throw out the window

  16. SpanglyPrincess

    Matteo: I don’t think anyone has suggested that racism is exclusively an Italian problem, by any means. You might also want to know a little bit more about who you’re talking too before assuming that everyone here is white or English.

    Nor was my article intended in any way to stereotype – I’m from a Milanese/Piemontese family but live in Rome, and most of my friends are from the South – I’m basing my judgements on the people I know, the things I see at football and what I observe here on a daily basis.

    As for regionalism – I think you’ll find there’s plenty of that going on in the UK (see Lancashire v Yorkshire, for instance, or the songs sung at Liverpool fans) though it tends to be a trifle less virulent in its hostility.

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  19. Phil

    In England there are also problems of racism and regionalism. With a lot of antagonism between neighbouring areas and cities as well as between regions. Also immigration has been higher in some place than others. Clubs are wrapped up in their regional and local identities and it would be difficult to stop regional discrimination, and it is often seen as a joke not abuse. English football has been fairly successful in stopping racist behaviour at matches, through having lots of black players for clubs and England (though there are still not many British Asian players), lots of people in the game speaking out against racism and the threat of being banned from football grounds for racist behaviour. The big question here is what can policies can help reduce racism in Italian football.

  20. upturnedcollar

    Italy, Spain you could go on all the way up the continent…racism is it not without its audience. I’ve even heard racist chants in Scandinavia. One should recognise that though we fancy ourselves progressive and open in Europe it would do us good not to turn a blind eye away from the pervasive tribalism that promotes provincial attitudes.

    Italy and Spain often get singled out because frankly their FAs seem like they can’t be bothered.

  21. ursus arctos

    A lot of truth in that, and it will be interesting to see how the Ouaddou incident (in which Valenciennes’ Moroccan international was yellow carded for going to remonstrate with his abuser at half time after the referee apparently ignored his complaints during the first 45 minutes) plays out in France.

    Valenciennes have asked for the match to be replayed, Metz have refused, but have offered to play a friendly with all of the proceeds going to an anti-racism charity. Meanwhile, the “supporter” hurling the abuse was quickly identified by other fans and now faces a court appearance and criminal charges, and the French justice minister (who happens to be of North African descent) has issued a tough statement condemming the abuse.

    Decent English language summary of that situation at this overlong link:

  22. terrapin

    um, so all the people of color sell 99 cent tat and pirated DVDs, eh. Sounds like you may want to look in the mirror when speaking about educated people who don’t realise they are saying something offensive.

  23. SpanglyPrincess

    Terrapin: you might have noticed that I was talking about the *visibility* of ethnic minority populations in Italy. The places where the majority of italians will see black, Indian or Chinese people, on a day to day basis, are as street sellers of fake dvds & handbags, or running a very specific kind of shop.

    I didn’t say those were the only activities which immigrant populations engaged in: but those are the places & circumstances where immigrants are most visible. I think this is quite important because it shapes the expectations and attitudes of the general population far more than the much smaller number of black or chinese skilled workers and professionals here.

  24. fromnetherlands

    Thanks good article.
    I tried to live for ten years in Italy the narrow mindedness, the fascism are clear and disgusting.
    Anyone non italian is basically a non issue.
    welcome to Italy.
    you can have your macaroni anywhere in the world where people are nice.

  25. enrico

    I’m a northern italian and I do not hate the south italians. I say that they are only different from us, so I ‘d like to be a northern italian citizen.
    I do not accept your silly words about the italian racism….do you remember how the germans,swiss, french etc treated the italian immigrants just 30 or 50 years ago?
    the massacres of italians near Marseilles in the beginning of the last century?
    How the germans treat the turks now?
    Remember the massacre in bruxelles stadium in 1985 where 35 italians died because of well eton educated young britons?
    Why they are riots in paris now?
    You, “gentle” guys of the left “progressist”(?) wings who wants the chaos and the eurabia, remember that you will be the first victimes of the current muslim and non white invasion..I do not know if you are stupid or agree the conspiracy agains our civilisation.


  26. Meteor Freaks

    It is true that if you only see a certain ethnic group in a limited capacity it will shape your opinion of them. Try living or working next to a black ghetto for any period of time and you are bound to develop strong racist tendencies. I’m not saying it is right, but it is what happens…

  27. Rome

    When we we ever learn that there’s no place for racism in football? i’ve seen so many times players like Eto being jeered …even in front of home crowd.. really sad.

  28. Mark

    Some Europeans really make me want to roll over in laughter with their gift of “Enlightenment”that they choose to shower upon us , want to know my experience?, one I am not white , I am mixed race and originally from the Caribbean -Trinidad and Tobago, its a multicultural society, with the East Indian and African Caribbean groups split almost in 1/2, but in all our years , we have never seen more than one East Indian represent our island in Football,and many other sporting disciplines even though there was no shortage of talent, and same goes for members of other ethnic groups.Why? because our FA is dominated by the Afro Caribbeans and if u not black stand back is how they operate.. Because Africans are masters at playing the role of victim, pointing the finger and saying everyone else in racist, (apparently they cant be ,only God knows why) before all you righteous folk go around spot checking why its so so bad Italy doeasnt have a Negrito playing for the Azzurri, think about the racism people like us suffer in other parts of the world from the African, or is that too much of a taboo to be examined??? And believe me if u check carefully there are many cases worldwide.. Guyana, Grenada, Uganda…..

  29. Rulo Vinello

    Very good written. I’ m loving reading these articles , it is such a rich topic, and a great chance for fans to share their knowledge & passion!


  30. antonio

    —Just a little note for the Author of the Article

    The Article sounds so etnhocentric and so stereotypical .You’ve just created a Masterpiece of ignorance.
    I would like to meet you.

    I’m Italian and I agree that extreme right wing socio-political orientation or as you said ‘fascism’ is without any doubts a big problem and honestly humanity didn’t need your science to understand that — In which pub have you developed your knowledge??

    Anyway.. I wanna just remind you that many Italian named “Partigiani” fought and died to fight fascism. Of course British like to take all the merits of having done that, I believe you’re not even taught about that at school, but hey!! that’s british Propaganda….

    Moreover many of the responses sound being written by a bunch of bullies that can finally express all their prejudices against Italians in such an anonymous place.
    Look yourself in a mirror first, and then tell me what you see.
    I think great part of the british history is long way worst than fascism.
    Oh I forgot…what about slavery??
    and violence (as it happened in India)??
    Not to mention british in Iraq torturing civilians.

    Do yourself a favour, check your history !