MILAN: It took a defiant gesture to reignite the debate on one of Italian sport’s biggest demons, but the fight to rid football of racism in Serie A could be just beginning.
On Friday Kevin-Prince Boateng, a German-born Ghanaian who plays for Serie A giants AC Milan, will hold talks with FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
However football tactics or Ghana’s recent showing at the Africa Cup of Nations are likely to give way to discussion of one of the scourges of the modern game.
In a January friendly against Pro Patria, Boateng and two other black teammates suffered racist abuse from a small group of fans of the side from Busto Arsizio outside Milan.
Boateng took offence and walked off the pitch, followed by his entire team.
It was seen as a pivotal moment and following other, unrelated incidents this season the Italian federation (FIGC) has pledged to take a firmer stance on racism.
“As a federation we are totally committed to (tackling) these issues,” the FIGC’s director general Antonello Valentini told Radio Anch’io Sport midweek.
What that will amount to remains to be seen, but what is certain is that racism in Italy and elsewhere is firmly back in the spotlight.
At a recent Inter-Milan derby Milan striker Mario Balotelli — born in Palermo to Ghanaian parents who gave him up for adoption, and who now plays for Italy — was subjected to monkey noises and inflatable bananas.
Inter, Balotelli’s former club and one created because its founding members wanted to welcome foreign players as well as Italians, were fined 50,000 euros by Italian league authorities.
Last week Inter fans subjected Tottenham’s Togo striker Emmanuel Adebayor to monkey chants during a recent Europa League clash.
They are now facing sanctions by UEFA, European football’s governing body which earlier this season fined Lazio after its fans racially abused fans of Tottenham, which has close ties to the Jewish community, and brandished “Free Palestine” banners at a Europa League tie in Rome.
In Italy, some would argue the terraces are theatres of expression for society’s ills.
In the 1980s the rise of the Lega Nord political party — which pitted rich northerners against their poorer, more rustic cousins from the south — drove a bigger wedge into the north-south divide.
To the tune of Italian classic ‘O sole mio’, Roma fans used to sing: “I have only one dream, Milan in flames.” Milan’s fans, referring to the influx of southerners to the northern industrial city, retorted: “Milan in flames? And where will you work?”
Immigration — which began late, in the 1980s and 1990s, compared to Britain and France — changed the landscape.
Although north-south, regional and inter-city rivalries still prevail, sections of the terraces at some clubs — where politically-motivated hardcore ‘ultra’ fans often call the shots — began targeting black or Jewish players.
At AC Milan Dutch great Ruud Gullit was infamously subjected to ‘bu-bu’ chants while in 2000 France midfielder Patrick Vieira suffered racist abuse on the field from Serbian midfielder Sinisa Mihajlovic while playing for Arsenal against Lazio in the Champions League.
Italy, however, has also witnessed the creation of anti-racism groups and outporings of support for black or non-white players who have been subjected to racism.
When, during the 2000-2001 season Serie B (second division) side Treviso were threatened with relegation some of the club’s fans began abusing their own striker, Nigerian Akeem Omolade.
In solidarity, Treviso’s players took to the pitch at their next home game with their faces painted black.
It is likely to take more to change attitudes, but the times may be about to change and clubs, it seems, are beginning to act.
After repeated fines this season for ‘discriminatory abuse’ by fans, Juventus coach Antonio Conte recently hit out at the “idiots” among the Bianconeri support.
Juve director general Beppe Marotta, announcing an anti-racism drive, admitted, however: “We know that football can’t do much on its own, it requires a change of culture and education.”
Boateng meets Blatter 24 hours after the Ghanaian gave an anti-racism speech at the UN (United Nations) in Geneva, where he later watched Italy take on Brazil in a friendly.
“Racism doesn’t go away. If we don’t confront it, it will spread,” Boateng told delegates.
It could take a decision by Blatter to add much-needed momentum.
Reacting to racism in Russian football this season, Blatter admitted it may take sanctions ranging from points deduction or even demotion to get the message through.
“Without serious sanctions nothing will ever change,” said the head of world football.