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 (by wilson santiago). 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

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