Matt’s Musings: Racism in European soccer continues to rear its ugly head

Matt Singer | Contributing Writer

Over six years ago, in 2013, ESPN writer Wright Thompson penned an article for “ESPN the Mag” titled, “When The Beautiful Game Turns Ugly: A journey into the world of Italy’s racist soccer thugs.” In the piece, Thompson focused a good amount on A.C. Milan, which featured exciting and young players of African descent like Kevin-Prince Boateng and Mario Balotelli (especially Balotelli, who was then one of the hottest commodities in world football). I was a relatively new soccer fan with no prior knowledge of the deep-seated racism and bigotry in Italian football or society in general.

After finishing the article, two thoughts occurred to me. First of all, I was very proud of myself for reading the whole thing. This was probably the first time I didn’t lose patience after four paragraphs while trying to read a long-form article. More importantly, I was appalled that people would hold and express racist views so outwardly in 2013. However, I did expect there to be significant progress in the coming years.

Six years later, the problem is just as bad, if not worse. Since 2013, the West has seen a rise in far-right politics, with parties holding bigoted views commanding more attention, and in some cases, power. Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy have all seen significant right-wing movements, and countries where the far-right never really disappeared have worsened.

This past weekend, Balotelli, who is back in Italy for Brescia after a five-year European tour, was subjected to racist monkey chants from Verona fans, resulting in his kicking the ball into the stands and a stoppage of play. Eventually, the game restarted, and Balotelli scored a screamer from outside the penalty box.

Not a bad way to respond, sure. But why is this even happening in the first place? In Thompson’s article, he also focused on Verona and its ultras (super-fans), as they were arguably the most problematic fanbase in the country. Unfortunately, it appears that is still the case.

To their credit, Verona did ban the ultras’ leader from games after he said Balotelli would “never be Italian,” even though Balotelli was born in Sicily and holds Italian citizenship. However, the ban is only in effect for 11 years. There should be absolutely no tolerance for this kind of behavior, and although I am a firm believer in second chances, this would be an exception. No matter how you spin it, taunting a Black player with monkey noises is racist. Lucas Castellini, the ultra leader, should be banned for life, full stop.

As bad as this story already was, just two days ago, it got worse. Four members of the Verona city council put forth a motion for “the mayor and the legal offices of the municipality should take legal action against the footballer and all those who attack Verona by unjustly defaming it,” and the mayor himself denied that the monkey chants ever happened. To use a British term (because we’re getting to them soon), it’s a bloody shambles.

Also over the weekend in Italy, Napoli center-back and Senegal international Kalidou Koulibaly was subjected to similar racist abuse against Roma in the Eternal City. That game was temporarily stopped as well. Koulibaly, widely recognized as one of the best defenders in world football, dealt with similar treatment from Inter Milan ultras last season.

Among non-Eastern European nations, Italy seems to be most problematic. The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) has failed time and again to take the appropriate action against fans who engage in racist behavior as well as the clubs who tolerate it. For example, in September, Atalanta fans taunted Fiorentina wing-back Dalbert in a similar manner to Balotelli and Koulibaly. FIGC did nothing in response, prompting FIFA President Gianni Infantino to call for action against those involved, specifically in the form of stadium bans. Keep in mind this is the president of FIFA, an organization so corrupt it makes the NCAA look like UNICEF. When even he has the moral compass to call you out, you know you’ve messed up big time.

As bad as it is in Italy, the Italians are not the only culprits. England has been on both sides of the issue in recent months, specifically involving Manchester City and English forward Raheem Sterling. Sterling, who has blossomed into one of the best players in the world in the last couple years, has been especially outspoken on the issue of racism in football. Last December, Sterling was racially abused by supporters of Chelsea. The backlash against those fans was swift, and Sterling led the way. He has been active on social media, calling out those who engage in anonymous racist behavior online.

Then, just under a month ago, the situation got even worse. England played away to Bulgaria in a EURO 2020 qualifying match. During the game, some Bulgarian fans started making monkey noises at Black English players. The match had to be temporarily stopped twice. Finally, the monkey chants subsided…and were replaced by Nazi salutes.

The reaction was swift and harsh, as both the coach and head of the Bulgarian Football Unionresigned shortly after the incident. The fact that the overwhelming response was one of condemnation is good, but it’s still not good enough. It is disgraceful that racism remains such a problem in 2019, especially in sports, something that can be a great unifier.

Football, loved by so many around the world, is often called the beautiful game, and for good reason. But until incidents like these cease to happen, the beautiful game will carry an ugly stain, one it has had for decades and just cannot seem to get out.

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