Ugly spectre of racism haunts Italian football's revival

TURIN • These should be the best of times for Italian football. Juventus reached their second Champions League final in three years on Tuesday, new investors are promising a revival of seven-time European champions AC Milan and the Serie A is casting off its reputation for sterile defensive fare.

But the renaissance risks being clouded by reminders of football's dark ages: racism has returned to haunt the national sport.

Ten days after Ghana and Pescara midfielder Sulley Muntari walked off in disgust at being racially abused during a match at Cagliari, the fans responsible have not been identified. And no action has been taken against the Sardinian club.

Muntari, in contrast, was sanctioned, after failing to persuade the referee to suspend the match. An outcry spearheaded by the international players' union and the United Nations human rights agency saw the ban overturned on appeal.

The spotlight on Italian football became sharper after Juventus' Moroccan defender Medhi Benatia cut short a TV interview at the weekend after reportedly hearing someone involved in the production describing him in racially derogatory terms.

Italian football cannot be blamed for that incident.

But sociologist and writer Mauro Valeri believes its racism problem is only partly about sport reflecting the outside world.

"What happened with Muntari is a very important episode. But only because he reacted. Sadly, this kind of thing is all too common," Valeri said.

"And it is not just Serie A and B. In junior football there have been 80 registered cases of black players being abused in the last two years.

"Usually by parents of their opponents and almost invariably nothing is done about it."

The Muntari abuse was one of a string of recent cases of black players being verbally attacked from the stands.

Serie A has sanctions procedures but the criteria for applying them (such as the whole stadium must be able to hear the abuse) means they are hardly ever used.

"It is just ridiculous," said Valeri. "The result is racism is never punished."

Another problem is that although Italy has strong legislation covering racial abuse, the law requires positive identification of the individuals involved, and clubs cannot be held responsible for failing to identify perpetrators.

Valeri says clubs fear alienating their most hardcore fans, even if they have extremist or even criminal affiliations, making it unlikely Muntari's aggressors will be punished.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2017, with the headline 'Ugly spectre of racism haunts Italian football's revival'. Print Edition | Subscribe