Racism in Serie A Is More Than Skin Deep

In Italy, racism is always there. Sometimes, it lies in thinly veiled "tributes" like nicknames or other references for black players that contain chocolate references. Other times, it is blatant and primal, like the monkey chants from fans aimed at black players. And it is not limited to only black players. Our own Ibrahimović has been racially abused throughout his career, while also being accused of racism by the racists. Even Maldini was subjected to racism at times for his Slovenian roots. But no matter how much the world calls for change, or even UEFA or FIFA call for sanctions unless action is taken, Serie A can never bring themselves to get it right. Because the truth of the matter is that racism in Serie A, or even Italy as a nation, is more than skin deep.

Often in Italy, players only have each other for support when racial abuse occurs

The most high profile case this past week involved the racial abuse of Romelu Lukaku that occurred earlier this month in Turin when Inter faced Juve in the first leg of the Coppa Italia Semifinals. (That's right, racism is so bad in Serie A, I have to write something not-negative about Inter. Thanks, Juve fans.) Approximately 250 fans were heard making monkey chants toward Lukaku throughout the match. So, when he converted a penalty in the 95th minute to equalize, he made his usual celebration, with a salute with one hand and a finger to the lips (like a hush.) Referee Davide Massa showed him a yellow card for this, his second yellow, sending him off and suspending him for the second leg.

A signature celebration punished by a racially tone deaf referee and system

Not only did Massa do absolutely nothing to stop the match or protect Lukaku from the abuse at all throughout the match (his job,) he punished Lukaku for what he thought was an attempt to instigate the crowd. He completely lost control of the match, and fighting ensued, especially after the final whistle, when he also sent off Cuadrado and Handanović. No one said a thing about the racism. Not Inter, not Juve, no one.

Enter RocNation Sports International, a Sports Management company who represent Lukaku. They released a statement within the hour condemning the abuse and Lukaku's absurd punishment, asking Serie A to tackle racism, and also demanding an apology from Juventus. RocNation Sports was founded by Jay-Z, and thus the statement immediately gained worldwide media attention. 

Massa had multiple rules he could have applied, and he chose the most racist one.

The next morning, Inter, seeing this, released their own statement, and finally, Juve released a statement saying they were collaborating with the police (but no apology, of course.) RocNation Sports doubled down and purchased a full-page ad in La Gazzetta dello Sport calling on people to denounce racism. Players past and present spoke out, even FIFA condemned the actions of Serie A. Other players copied Lukaku's celebration to speak out against racism. Because of all of the media attention, Serie A actually acted and handed Juventus a partial stadium ban. 

Delusional journalists wrote about how all of this was "a big step forward," when, in fact, it was business as usual. Juventus cooperated with police and identified an adult and a minor, handing them both Daspos (stadium bans,) so when they appealed their partial stadium ban, it was suspended. This is pretty typical for Serie A. If a club says or does the "right thing," they go unpunished. Suspended punishments are rarely enforced. Meanwhile, Inter also appealed Lukaku's suspension, with the world watching the outcome of this high profile victim of racism closely, magnified through the lens of RocNation SportsHis appeal was denied.

It's very simple.

With even Italian media mocking the decision, FIGC President Gabriele Gravina miraculously revealed that he had the power to waive the suspension, and he did, as if he was some kind of hero. Note that:

1) racial abuse occurred and no one stopped it
2) the victim of the abuse was punished
3) the abusers escaped their suspension
4) the victim's suspension was upheld
5) finally, someone did "the right thing," but only with worldwide media pressure

RocNation Sports posted their victory with "One step at a time," because 4 wrongs don't make a right

On Monday, it was revealed that 171 Juventus fans had been identified and sanctioned. That is significant, but it is unclear exactly what these "sanctions" are as of yet. Both fines and bans have been mentioned, but will they be enough to make a difference? And that news comes along with the news that Inter fans were chanting disgusting things within the same match. Worse still, the president of Italy's Referee Association doubled-down and said that any player trying to silence a crowd would still be punished going forward. Because this is Italy, after all.

While slightly less publicized, Lazio also received a partial stadium ban that was announced the same day of Lukaku's initial abuse. This time around, serial racial abuser Lazio fans were punished for anti-semitic chants during the Rome Derby the previous weekend. But because the club said the right things and banned three guilty supporters for life, their ban, too, was suspended.

Karamoh asked on Instagram, "How can these kinds of people be allowed in the stadium in 2023?"

That should have been short-lived, as Torino's Yann Karamoh was racially abused this past weekend in their match at the Olimpico. However, Lazio's partial stadium ban will apparently not be given, as miraculously, none of the FIGC inspectors heard any abuse of Yann Karamoh. Or Wilfried Singo. Which means they definitely heard it, but refuse to actually give them a ban. Or perhaps it wasn't a high enough percentage of the crowd abusing them, a rule that only Italy has regarding racial abuse. I am sure the Italians have a perfectly good reason to ignore blatant racism. Again.

It would certainly not be Lazio's first, nor would it be Lazio's last stadium ban, either. In fact, when I searched for sources on the Karamoh incident, dozens of past incidents in just the past several years came up involving Lazio fans. Imagine being Karamoh and Singo. First having to endure the abuse, the referee not stopping the match, and now the FIGC refusing to acknowledge or punish Lazio fans for what everyone heard. Because in Serie A, racism always wins.

This video went viral, and even though Leão answered on the pitch, absolutely nothing was done about the abuse.

Of course, two incidents in a single month could hardly be enough for Serie A. Last week, amidst the flurry of terrorism that Napoli fans inflicted on the world, a few Napoli supporters abused Leão as he left the hotel and boarded the bus for the match. Their monkey chants were unmistakable in a video that went viral, although naïve Napoli supporters claim that their fans don't do that. Just last year, they were fined for racially abusing Ibrahimović at the Maradona, for example. But sure, their fans don't do that. We would all like to believe our own fans are immune, but just last year, a Milan fan was issued a Daspo after insulting a Napoli journalist. It is Italy. Racism is everywhere.

Perhaps most disappointing, however, is the eerie silence from Milan. The club that created the #RespACT campaign, and will use their social media to support random players who get abused for race or gender, and have previously supported their own players, made no statement whatsoever about the abuse of their own player, Rafael Leão. Others spoke out about it. But nothing from his own club. How lonely that must be. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that our CEO now is Italian, compared to a non-Italian who previously supported our players when abused?

Maignan's public statement after abuse from Juventus fans one time.

Yet it should not really be that shocking. When I first learned about the abuse at the Stadio Olimpico and again at J Stadium, I did a search of this blog for articles I had written about racism over the past ten years. There are more than 50. And I do not even write about a fraction of the incidents. But this blog is about a club that is in Serie A, in Italy. The same Italy who blamed their entire failed World Cup performance in 2014 on their singular black player, but then failed to even qualify in the next two World Cups

Italy is a nation that does not even understand what racism is. This year, for Carnevale, Neapolitan parents proudly dressed their children in blackface as a salute to Osimhen. And Roberto Mancini publicly supported them, saying it was not racism. Yet ask a person of color, and they are absolutely horrified. Bakeries throughout Napoli have tried to outdo themselves with various chocolate confections as a tribute to him. This is them trying to honor their own player. And it is not new. Clarence Seedorf was known as "Willy Wonka" because of his chocolate-colored complexion, for example, a title many Italians still hold dear. It is 2023.

This was Serie A's anti-racism campaign in December 2019.

Italians are completely tone deaf to the concept of tolerance. They cry when they are stereotyped or feel discriminated against, but have zero awareness of their widespread discrimination and hatred toward others. In fact, they see racism as just a cause, not a problem. Something like children's cancer or domestic abuse that they can just raise money for and it will go away. They have no concept of how or why racism is not just words, how it impacts everyone, not just the desired victims. We have seen the footballing world do amazing things to demonstrate that we are all just human beings. Football is a fantastic medium to spread tolerance and love through the beauty of the game, but all too often, fans mar the experience with hatred and violence.

People think that change is impossible, that people are set in their ways. This may seem true, especially in Italy. After his ban was removed, Lukaku himself said he believed it proved that there is "a desire to fight racism." Yet so far, Italy has not really changed anything, it was his management that made the difference. Just ask Rafael Leão or Yann Karamoh or Wilfried Singo. Or whomever the fans will be abusing this week. Unless they have someone as powerful as RocNation Sports behind them, we may not even hear about it.

Muntari was given a suspension for walking off the pitch in 2017 because of abuse at Pescara and even the U.N. condemned Italy.

Last year, during Serie A's designated "Keep Racism Out" weekend, Maignan and Tomori were abused by Cagliari fans. While this was just one of a number of times they have been abused, having it happen with all of the videos and signs and shirts and armbands was a complete mockery of how ineffective Serie A's efforts are to fight racism. Ten years ago, I came up with some very creative, unconventional ideas to deal with racism, including stockades, paintball guns, electric shock techniques, face tattoos, and more. Obviously, I was joking. But maybe it is finally time to shake things up and do something like that. Maybe Italy needs us to approach their shocking lack of morals with equally shocking punishments before they can properly see themselves in the mirror.

This was certainly not Lukaku's first time being racially abused. (At least this time, his own fans did not support the racists, though.) Nor was Lukaku the first player punished for being racially abused in Italy. Remember Muntari, for example? Unfortunately, I doubt that Lukaku will be the last one punished for being abused, either. And no, of course Lukaku never got that apology that RocNation Sports asked for from Juventus. Despite Napoli fans embracing Koulibaly, all of his efforts to educate them about racism seem to have been in vain. Because apparently, racism is part of Italy's DNA. Racism in Serie A is more than skin deep.

This post inspired by the music of Dionne Warwick's "What the World Needs Now Is Love"

Our next match is 
Serie A Week 32
Roma vs. Milan
Saturday, April 29, 2023 • 18:00 CET (9am EDT)

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