Arrigo Sacchi’s comments that “there are too many colored players” in Italian youth teams is the latest in a series of racism cases that have emerged in Italian soccer but it is arguably the most revealing.
The Italian game is in the midst of a dramatic decline and it is sometimes easy to forget that it was not so long ago that Italy’s Serie A enjoyed an image as Europe’s most stylish and sophisticated league matching the country’s global (and self) image.
Like many others, I was entranced by Serie A during the time of Sacchi’s wonderful Milan team in the late 1980’s and when Channel Four in the UK began broadcasting live games from Italy, I lapped it up – everything seemed to be on a higher level than in England.
The stadiums for the top teams were bigger, louder and more dramatic stages for games with banners, flags and smoke bombs. The technique on display was far superior than that found in England’s top flight and they had the best foreign imports.
Later, when I spent eight years in Italy as a reporter, I was fortunate to be able to watch some of the best players of that era perform in the great Serie A derbies – Ronaldo, Zidane, Nedved, Batistuta, Veron, Shevchenko and Crespo alongside great Italians – Maldini, Del Piero, Vieri, Totti and Inzaghi.
The Italians described Serie A with some justification as the ‘most beautiful league in the world’ but even in that golden era, racism reared its head.
Usually, it was the fascistic Lazio ultras but even supposedly more progressive Fiorentina fans abused Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke when they played for Manchester United at the Stadio Franchi back in 1999.
Sadly, there is little beauty in modern calcio.
The decline of the top Italian teams, who now struggle to make an impact in European competition, has led many international fans to downgrade Serie A in their rankings of the world’s best, but it is the racism that has laid bare the myth of Italian sophistication.
Italian fans were once viewed as among the most colorful and passionate in Europe, the occasional violence of the ultras notwithstanding, but the series of incidents involving abuse of black players has exposed many ultras for what they often are – far-right racists.
The lack of action from officials was often put down to bureaucratic inertia but the shameful comments from football officials and politicians such as the “banana eating” jibe from the head of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) Carlo Tavecchio regarding African players, suggests the problem is much deeper.
Tellingly, despite his racist slur, Tavecchio remains the head of the FIGC having been backed by key leaders of Serie A and B clubs, many of whom clearly have little concern for the impact of such words on their own African and black players.
Sacchi’s comments, like Tavecchio’s, were in the context of a lament about the state of Italian soccer.
Tavecchio targeted the signing of players from Africa with little proven talent or experience: “Let’s say there’s [an imagined player] Opti Poba, who has come here, who previously was eating bananas and now is a first-team player for Lazio … In England, he has to demonstrate his CV and his pedigree.”
Sacchi was upset about the number of foreign and black players in Italian youth teams.
“Seeing so many players of color, so many foreigners, it’s an affront to Italian football,” he said before commenting on the lack of “dignity” and “pride in our own country.”
Sacchi seems to be unaware of the possibility of black Italians playing in youth teams despite the fact that the Azzurri have already featured the likes of Mario Balotelli, Angelo Ogbonna and Stefano Okaka, all of them black players born in Italy.
The personal histories of those three players reveals that the problem is much deeper than the ignorance of a 68-year-old coach.
Balotelli, born in Palermo and raised in Brescia, was unable to play for Italy’s Under-15 and Under-17 national teams because he didn’t receive citizenship of the only country he had ever known until he was 18.
Likewise Okaka and Ogbanna were denied their full rights as Italian citizens until their 18th birthdays, ignored by national youth teams because the Italian state denied them the chance to have the same opportunities and rights as others born in the country.
The most revealing piece of racism that Balotelli faced was the chant from Juventus fans of “Non ci sono negri italiani” – “There are no black Italians”.
Even when the Italian state decides after 18 years, that a black man born in Italy deserves citizenship, in the eyes of too many Italians he remains a foreigner.
It was surely no coincidence that when Balotelli’s younger brother Enock Barwuah faced abuse in a lower division game near Brescia last September, the chant used was “black ‘Bresciani’ don’t exist’.
Clearly these attitudes reveal a societal problem and while Sacchi’s racism is obviously not in the same category of crudeness as the fans abusing players, he also appears unable to come to terms with the fact that black Italiani esistono.
Sacchi’s comments also reveal the all too common habit of blaming minorities and foreigners for decline – something seen in many societies, of course, and a common view from the kind of Italians who shake their heads at the sight of kebab shops and Chinese-owned stores in streets where traditional Italian shops once thrived.
The decline of Italian soccer has many explanations. A lack of finance to allow clubs to compete with the top teams in Europe is the primary reason but arguments can be made about coaching, player development and a host of other factors.
The presence of black players in youth soccer clearly isn’t one of those reasons, indeed as the world champions Germany have shown, embracing the offspring of immigrants can bring tremendous results.
Sacchi’s denial of the racism charge featured the familiar utilization of the ‘black friend’ argument, as he cited the presence of Dutchman Frank Rijkaard in his great Milan team.
Perhaps Rijkaard should remind him that, before he became a Milan star, he too was one of those black teenagers playing in youth soccer.
Editor’s note: Every Thursday, World Soccer Talk featured columnist Simon Evans shares his thoughts and opinions on world soccer topics. You can follow Simon on Twitter at @sgevans. Plus, read Simon’s other columns for World Soccer Talk.
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