Racism in soccer remains an international, and not just Italian, problem
The DJ of a popular Italian radio station recently hit the spotlight of public debate as he discovered that Googling the name “Vulcan Vesuvio” did not yield as the top result the definition of the famous vulcan, but the racist refrain – “Vesuvio, wash them with fire” – that Neapolitan soccer fans are condemned to listen to almost whenever their team plays an away game (most of such games, in fact, are played against northern Italian teams, from cities where racism towards southern Italians has never disappeared since its beginning with the unification of Italy in 1861). The situation even worsened last month when during the Italy’s National Cup game Naples-Atalanta (the team from Bergamo, a city not far from Milan), a banner with the face of Cesare Lombroso appeared in the stands of the supporters of the away team. Often referred to as the father of criminology, Lombroso was the criminologist and physician who founded the Italian School of Positivist Criminology and – with his theories that the white man is superior in every respect to other races and that criminality is inherited as someone “born criminal” could be identified by physical (congenital) defects, which confirmed a criminal as savage or atavistic – propagated scientific racism against southern Italians (moat of such physical traits were, in fact, attributed to southerners). Quite disregarded by the scientific community, Lombroso still can rely on a particular, perhaps unexpected, type of supporters: soccers fans.
The question of racism in soccer is certainly not an easy one. Why does it exist? Where does it originate? Why is it apparently more acceptable in some societies than others? What different forms does it takes within the game? How, and to whom, should punishments be administered?
None of these questions have easy answers, since the very issue itself is ambiguous and highly subjective. Racism has always been an issue in the game in one form or another and, for the sake of clarity, can be put into three different categories: player-on-player incidents, incidents involving the crowd, and institutional racism. But that is about as simple as it gets. Each of these forms exists for different reasons, must be punished in different ways and can only be eliminated entirely using vastly different approaches.
Player-on-player incidents, such as the John Terry and Anton Ferdinand saga in England, can primarily be explained by looking specifically at the background, personality and education of the perpetrating individual(s) rather than debating broad sociological questions. Therefore, although the Terry and Ferdinand case falls under the category of racism in soccer, it does not tell us why racism still exists en masse. A far more fruitful (but also more frustrating) category to examine are the cases involving institutional and crowd racism. For any English soccer fan or player in the 1980s, institutional and crowd-based racism were as deeply rooted in the game as the use of a round ball. Ethnic minority players were the minority, the country was in deep recession, and the extreme right-wing National Front was capitalizing and gaining popularity. As in any recession, some people needed to find a scapegoat for the lack of jobs. Some people blamed Margaret Thatcher, and some less-enlightened individuals inevitably sang the familiar tune, “stop taking our jobs and go back to your own country.” Meanwhile, on the soccer field, John Barnes – an extremely talented midfielder and the first black player to play for England – was at the receiving end of ‘monkey chants’ from the crowd, casual racism in the dressing room, and bananas being thrown at him on the pitch. This was nonchalantly passed off as ‘banter’ at the time, even by Barnes himself, simply because it was a widely accepted, deeply integrated aspect of the game at the time. Over the years, this has fortunately changed significantly and England, although not without its problems, has gone a long way towards tackling racism in soccer, to the point where crowd-based incidents are all but gone and institutional racism is now anything but acceptable. By definition, institutional racism is endemic and a fundamental change in society is needed to eliminate it. As England came out of recession, it was able to invest a lot more money in education, put strict new guidelines in place to deal with it, and have the means to back this up with a strong police force presence at matches. A large part of crowd-based racist chanting was also tackled as the increased police presence went a long way towards eliminating the feeling of anonymity that many of these people feel protect them.
But of course, that’s the story of just one country. Every country has its own story and it would take a book, not an article, to talk about all of them. Unfortunately, crowd racism is still somewhat commonplace in many countries, not least of which is the one we’re in now. Only in recent months AC Milan’s Mario Balotelli was subject to racist chanting from the crowd against local rivals Inter (his former club). Lazio was ordered to play two games behind closed doors after four racist incidents this season, including an anti-Semitic attack in a bar against Tottenham Hotspur fans. On top of this there was also an incident during a game between AC Milan and lower-league club Pro Patria (which ominously translates as ‘For the Fatherland’, not that I’m calling them a racist club you understand, just observing a coincidence). In that game Milan player Kevin Prince Boateng left the field after racist chants were directed at him and some of his black teammates. The team promptly followed and the game was abandoned.
Similarly, Spain has regularly been in the news in recent years for similar incidents, as have Russia and several Eastern European countries.
But in 2018, in a sporting climate that is now truly international and diverse, why is there still an issue? Perhaps the ineffective governance and wildly outdated views of maverick FIFA President Sepp Blatter, and his assertion that racist incidents should be resolved “with a handshake?” Although FIFA, UEFA and domestic soccer associations continuously state that a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach must be taken to racism, and regularly follow through with bringing charges, the punishments that are administered simply don’t cut it. You only have to look as far as the racist pandemonium at the 2013 Serbia U21 vs. England U21 game. Fans, players and coaching staff of the Serbian team were all heavily involved in violent and racist incidents at the end of the game. They were fined €65,000 and have to play one game behind closed doors.
A fundamental change in society must be the long-term goal and the elimination of the opportunistic, right-wing elements from soccer grounds entirely. However, until that is achieved, the short-term solution must be to make the punishments severe enough that they genuinely affect that minority of individuals who are involved, such as suspensions from entire competitions, much bigger fines and lifetime bans for individuals. The perpetrators don’t care if the team is fined €50,000 and given a slap on the wrist; the only effective solution is one that affects them directly. Granted, this would also hurt the majority of peaceful fans who just want to enjoy the day and support their team. However much we all love it, soccer is still a game and the elimination of racism must take precedence.