Selling Tolerance in Football

Editor’s note: Continuing the discussion on this and other blogs over racism in Italian football, we welcome Supriya Nair — aka Roswitha from the excellent blog Treasons, Strategems & Spoils — who considers what it will take for a real stand to be made against it.

Can tolerance be sold? As we consider the embedded racism in Italian football brought up by Martha’s recent post on The Offside: Italy blog and Vanda’s follow-up post here on Pitch Invasion, we need to consider how it’s best addressed: will it be solved by an advertising campaign to kick racism out of football, by the levelling tendency of corporate globalisation, or does it need more radical and direct action by those on the pitch and in the stands?

Martha, like most of us calcio fans from outside Italy, got to the very heart of the question that often puzzles us. It’s not the why of the racism — it’s the why not, as in “Why aren’t there more measures challenging it?”

This is a difficult question for those of us dependent almost wholly on mediated images and sounds for our Italian football fix.

Why can’t we see people doing more to stop the offensive chants and the hate speech that crop up continually in stadiums across the peninsula? It’s agonising, as from this distance it seems it could be dealt with by a sustained and prominent campaign against racism.

But in our heart of hearts we know, ruefully, that advertising is not the answer to everything, even if it can help kickstart change.

Kick Racism Out of Football

Real change

I’m suspicious of the media industry that has sprung up around public forums on racism and discrimination. There is a give and take between social and brand awareness – but the imbalance of the two limits any potential success. Nor am I sure of the long-term value of commercial spots against racism. Maybe the nature of the cause celèbre industry is such that more money goes into pimping the brand than the cause. I’m reminded of the recent Apple/U2 anti-AIDS initiative, costing millions of dollars promoting Apple and Bono but a huge failure as no one turned up to buy their red iPods after all.

And the corporate social responsibility bandwagon is an industry. It’s far more edifying to see sportsmen advertise anti-racism measures than it is to see them do cola ads, but it isn’t less manipulative, for all its moral rectitude. I’m convinced that they are not the yardstick by which real social change can be measured. Is it really possible to sell the idea – and not merely the appearance – of tolerance?

Real change needs emotion and spontaneity, rather than an institutionalised campaign. Stadium violence in Italy is linked to a deep frustration with the failure of social institutions and a society in which offenders are traditionally suspicious of their government, their media, and their footballing establishment. A stadium ban, a fine, a police clampdown, and a multicoloured wristband can only achieve limited success.

In November, Juventus fans smuggled a banner into their game against Inter which called Zlatan Ibrahimovic a foul gypsy. The offenders were dealt with quickly, and the incident faithfully reported in measured tones by papers like La Gazzetta. And yet, apart from a short statement by Javier Zanetti in the post-match conference, the Juve case prompted little personal response. To the best of my knowledge, Zlatan’s own response to this demeaning abuse is yet to be recorded.

Italian banner

Which is fine; the man has the right to stay quiet, or simply decide that he doesn’t give a damn, if that’s what it is. After all, the Italian Football Federation seem to be doing a better job now in punishing such incidents.

But the ossification of these incidents into the administrative platitudes of Isolated Racist Behaviour and They Are Not Real Football Fans served up with a We Have It Under Control assurance is not what Italian football needs. It requires, instead of corporate social responsibility-fulfilling TV spots, the sight of a football team — or perhaps both football teams — refusing to continue a match until an abusive chant is silenced. It requires the players to walk up to the sidelines and ask fans what the fuck they think they’re doing: a popular rebellion is needed, and possible. One Marco Zoro may have been a lone voice in a storm. But four or five, acting with intent, can be effective.

Standing Up

Lilian Thuram once told of his experience playing for Parma around the turn of the century.

‘It was at a Parma-Milan match,’ he says, ‘when our Parma fans were chanting racist slogans against Ibrahim Ba and George Weah (both Milan players) that I thought how sick this was. The press officer tried to stop me, but I went to see the fans at our training ground and told them what I thought. The next week there was an apologetic banner at the match saying, “Thuram, respect us please!”

Lilian ThuramOf course, times have changed and naïveté has never been an excuse for bad behaviour, but the Thuram example remains important. The average racial abuser, in our imaginations, has a particular profile: he is white, male, often young, usually unemployed, or disenfranchised in some way (and usually, especially if you’re from outside Italy, in a Lazio jersey). The sort of guy who feels safe in a mob, who will duck and cower if you confront him. Accurate? Maybe, maybe not. Has anyone ever tried a confrontation, though? Not from behind a desk or a truncheon, but face-to-face, like Lilian Thuram with his home crowd?

Which is why football stadia should be good places for players themselves to set the ball rolling. There is a visceral connection between fans at a stadium and the team they are watching. And if, without choreography, without tokenism, without performing behind the safety screen of a symbolic gesture, someone stood up and asked for change, I think they could get it. Protest movements may not work against war and empires anymore, but they can work in sport. Perhaps a Newcastle player shushing his own fans would have stopped his team’s own fans calling Mido a ‘terrorist’. He might have made a difference where Rio Ferdinand holding a placard on a TV screen couldn’t.

Of course, footballers (and fans, who can make the same sort of grassroots-level difference, à la Perugia) are only human. It would hardly be easy, especially in a mob activity like football, to tip the world upside down.

But it’s dangerously wrong to expect the mass media to substitute for the visceral effect of individual actions. It’s just another way for corporations to subjugate political impulse. Perhaps it’s too Hollywoodish to expect a movement to awaken the guilt of privilege, so dormant in societies without a modern history of colonisation or oppression. But what is football but drama? And why not expect change that comes about in sporting arenas to percolate through the rest of the world?

Photo credits: watt.stuart; smuykpp1plaju

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