Face-to-face with the beast: calcio & racism

Italian football’s lingering racism problem is no secret.

Those that follow Serie A are accustomed to reading a new batch of charges levelled against clubs or sections of support for discriminatory chants every few months. With a similar frequency come hopelessly misguided comments from powerful figures in the game – be it former national team coach Arrigo Sacchi, or FIGC President Carlo Tavecchio – which serve to implicitly legitimise the bigoted attitudes involved.
Knowing of the existence of racism, however, doesn’t sufficiently prepare a British spectator for the jarring experience of witnessing it first-hand.Back in October of 2015, Internazionale hosted Roma at the San Siro in a mouth-watering top-of-the-table encounter.

The Nerazzurri were midway through recording an implausibly consistent string of stubborn 1-0 victories, and Gary Medel’s first-half strike had set his team on the way to another. Roma, evidently the more offensively fluid side, piled on the pressure after the break, and Ivorian winger Gervinho was launching regular assaults down the left flank with little reward. At around the 70-minute mark, he became embroiled in a heated discussion with referee Nicola Rizzoli over the tough treatment he was receiving from the Inter rear-guard.

Sensing the former Arsenal man’s frustration, the home supporters picked their moment to launch a volley of abuse at their adversary. Above the usual jeers and whistles, however, came something much more unsavoury. Clearly audible was the sound of monkey impersonations, sometimes termed as ‘bu-bu’ chants, which are well recognised as the racist football fan’s historical modus operandi. I failed to visually identify a single perpetrator, and the lack of any mention of crowd problems in media reports following the game suggested that the taunts were relatively localised. Nevertheless, the deep and snarling tones in which they were delivered made the noises seem to reverberate around me with cavernous amplitude.

For a British Inter fan accustomed to the contempt that explicit racism is now rightly met with in the UK, it was a rude awakening. Hearing this kind of vocalised ignorance cast daylight on a reality I knew to exist, but rarely had to see or chose to ponder. Suddenly, the giddy anxiety that the match had generated was replaced by a sobering and very unique variety of shame.

In his colourful football-based autobiography Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby wrote of the ‘quivering panic of liberal foreboding’ he would feel every time a black player came to the fore at Highbury during the 1970s and 80s, anticipating the obscenities that were likely to follow. Hornby, like I, was panged by embarrassment at his position among fellow supporters partial to espousing views utterly antithetical to his own. Wearing the same colours, and reacting with the same howls of delight or disgust at every other event taking place, staying silent doesn’t separate the anti-racist football fan from the surrounding ‘bu-buers’. You are simply part of the same mass, and when the loudest voices of that mass decide to racially abuse a player, you feel the shame of a passive participant.

Even harder to stomach than that shame is the realisation of how deeply self-absorbed an emotion it is. Neither I nor Hornby are thinking primarily of the on-field recipients of the taunts in our respective experiences, nor are we considering the ethnic minority groups that are likely to feel further marginalised as a result. Instead, it’s the crowd’s engulfment of our precious identities as enlightened individuals which provides the main source of our discomfort. This rather embarrassing predicament is further demonstrated by my feelings as I left the Giuseppe Meazza stadium; only a faint uneasiness remained to dampen the joy of seeing Inter momentarily stand top of Serie A after the win. While highly uncomfortable, white liberal shame leaves none of the psychological scarring inflicted on victims of racial abuse.

Different from Hornby’s situation, of course, is the time period concerned. Racist chanting has been practically eradicated from English football stadia, and one could easily conclude that what I heard was reflective of a hopelessly backward football culture that has failed to move with the times. The reality is slightly less chronological.

British Calcio historian John Foot noted his surprise at the comparative lack of racism he witnessed in Italian football during the eighties. This was to change over the subsequent decade, which saw the arrival of over one and a half million immigrants and a troubling strand of racism seep into the nation’s society and politics in response. Far-right organisations like the neo-fascist Forza Nuova used football stadiums to consolidate support during the nineties, dictating the often fiercely political discourses existing within them. The UK, meanwhile, spent the same period rightfully exiling explicit racism to the realms of taboo. As a result, the modern English football fan is left recoil at the outdated attitudes yet to be purged from the Italian game.

Indeed, a gaping lack of taboo with respect to racist language lies at the root of the problem, as demonstrated by the contradictions that can be found within it. Sticking with Internazionale as our example, my own experience was not, of course, an isolated incident at Nerazzurri matches. The Curva Nord has been hit with a number of charges related to racially insensitive chants, most recently for those made toward Juventus’s Paul Pogba last May. But this is a club founded, as its name suggests, on the principle that foreign players should be welcomed rather than excluded from Italian football. An illustrious array of black players have worn its colours, some of whom – including Samuel Eto’o, Maicon and for a brief period, England’s Paul Ince – have been idolised by the Curva.

Football fans may not be renowned for logical consistency, but there’s a clear disconnect here. Racism seems not to constitute a heartfelt belief for these supporters, but instead a weapon they’re willing to deploy against opposition players in pursuit of a psychological advantage. A self-confessed chanter of monkey noises at Lazio has openly admitted as such. What this discrimination evidently does not represent, as it very clearly should, is a line that is not to be crossed.

Very relevant here is the lax attitude towards political correctness evident in the Italian mainstream, which becomes apparent after spending any prolonged time in the country. The use of the word ‘yellow’ to describe those of Chinese origin, or cleaners being referred to simply as ‘le filippine’, are linguistic choices which attract little to none of the disapproval they would garner among most Brits. While not appearing to denote genuine hatred in itself, such insensitivity towards immigrants and foreigners offers an explanation as to why some Italian football supporters will voice discriminatory sentiments that they don’t truly mean. If an opponent is deemed to be in need of the crowd’s derision then his race is but an avenue through which to do so, not carrying the same cultural severity it does in northern Europe.

Needless to say, a lack of ideological conviction on the part of racists is no excuse for their racism, and does nothing to mitigate the disgust one feels in witnessing it. Inconveniently, such a culturally engrained issue is unlikely to be solved by the temporary stand closures which are generally enforced in response. That isn’t to suggest that the authorities should do nothing, and the fact that the behaviour I witnessed passed either unnoticed or ignored added to the disheartening feeling the experience provided. More fundamentally, though, Italian society at large will need to take racism more seriously if those who attend its football stadiums are ever to do the same.

Words by Tom Guerriero-Davies: @TomGDella