Racism. It’s everywhere in sport and in life. It’s a constant battle for black people to be accepted in world society, in sport, in their neighborhoods, and online. In soccer, it has been a serious problem for as long as the game has existed. It seems like every week, there is a new occurrence involving black players being subjected to racial taunts in a match or racial abuse online.
Just in the past 12 months, England, Spain, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Russia, and Montenegro are among the many nations that have had racist incidents in soccer. The United States, Canada, and Mexico aren’t innocent bystanders to this either. However, no league’s constant racism problem has been more in the spotlight over the past 12 months than Italy’s Serie A. In the past 12 months, there have been several documented instances of racist chants or occurrences towards black players. But, for many, it’s not just the racism, it’s the reaction to it...or lack thereof.
In April 2019, Moise Kean, then a player for Juventus, experienced racist taunts from Cagliari fans during a match there. He didn’t decide to walk off the field, but decided to combat the racism a different way. After he scored a goal, he celebrated towards the same fans, responding to the racist taunts. After the match, both his manager and teammate both shockingly criticized Kean for his reaction. ”He shouldn’t have celebrated in that manner,” said coach Massimiliano Allegri after the match. ”He is a young man and he has to learn, but certain things from the crowd also shouldn’t be heard.” Teammate Leonardo Bonucci agreed with his coach, saying of Kean: ”I think the blame is 50-50. Moise should not have done that and the Curva [fans] should not have reacted in that way.”
It was a reaction met with disdain around the world, but when you think about it, it doesn’t matter. Kean did not receive backing from his own coach or teammate towards obvious racism directed at him. It was part of the reason why Kean left last summer for Everton.
In the 2019-2020 season, Serie A’s problems have continued unabated. In August 2019, Romelu Lukaku experienced monkey chants as Inter Milan played at Cagliari. He scored a penalty kick in the end of the Cagliari supporters, leading to racial abuse after Lukaku scored. After the match, Lukaku proclaimed that soccer was “going backwards” on racism.
Despite it being the second high-profile racist incident in just a few months from Cagliari, and with the club denying its supporters ever did anything, Lukaku received a letter from Curva Nord, an Inter supporters group, that said that the monkey chants he experienced were a “sign of respect.” That’s right, a letter coming from his own fans saying to dismiss the monkey chants as “respect.” Cagliari was later cleared of any racist wrongdoing by an independent sports judging panel.
An Italian TV pundit discussing the incident stated that to stop Lukaku, you would need “10 bananas for him to eat.” He was later banned for his comments.
In September, AC Milan’s Franck Kessie experienced racial abuse by Hellas Verona fans. The team denied that any racism took place. No action was taken by the league. In October, Lazio was punished with a fine and order to play matches behind closed doors after their fans were found to have displayed racial abuse towards black players. That same month, Sampdoria’s Ronaldo Vieira was allegedly jeered with monkey chants from AS Roma fans.
You should probably be tired already, but Serie A was not done. In November, Brescia’s Mario Balotelli was racially targeted by opposing frans from Hellas Verona. At one point, disgusted with what he was hearing, he kicked the ball into the crowd at the supporters and threatened to walk off the field. Teammates and opposing players alike pleaded with Balotelli to stay on the field and play, insisting that it was okay to continue. Balotelli would continue and eventually score a goal.
Hellas Verona conducted an investigation of its ultras group and denied that there was audible racist abuse towards Balotelli during the match. However, in an interview with the leader of the ultras group that was meant to reassure Balotelli that the racism was “only in his head,” the ultras leader proceeded to call Balotelli “not really Italian” and use several racial slurs in describing him. Verona banned the leader from matches until June 2030, saying that a 10-year ban was “proportional to the seriousness of the situation.” Another Verona fan was given a 5-year ban for his racist abuse towards Balotelli.
In response to the many documented exhibitions of racism in the young season, the Corriere dello Sport newspaper wanted to do an anti-racism message. So, for a upcoming match between AS Roma and Inter Milan, their front page read “Black Friday” with pictures of Inter’s Romelu Lukaku and Roma’s Chris Smalling, who both used to be teammates at Manchester United.
The cover was met with swift and harsh criticism from the two teams, with the teams banning the newspaper from having access to their team until January. The newspaper doubled down on their attempt, stating that they merely intended to “celebrate diversity” and that ”[if] you don’t understand, it is because you can’t or you don’t want to understand.”
Serie A later that month decided to launch an anti-racism campaign, but they did so in a way that itself was racist. They unveiled a poster that featured 3 cartoon monkeys with face paint in the colors of the teams in the league. Once again, the league was sharply rebuked for its insensitive attempt and later apologized.
Is everyone else tired yet? That’s just one league over a few months. While racism seems to have a constant recurrence in Serie A, it’s not the only place in Europe or the world where black players have to experience racism on a regular basis. The worst part is the reaction. Black players are left with no recourse. Some players have been criticized for attempting to leave the field or for their reactions after goals. Some have even been issued red cards for reacting visibly to racist abuse on the field. All of it contributes to the problem. If they stay on the field, the racists win. If they leave, people will tell the players that they let the racists win by getting to them.
There’s the denial. No one in the league wants to fully admit that their fans have a problem with racism. Every occurrence is met with a full-on fight to convince the world that the black player was just “in his own head” or that he was just “hearing things.” “Our fans aren’t racist! You didn’t hear what you think you heard!” The denial is always there. Even when the evidence points to the contrary, black players have to also fight the fact that teams will do everything to discredit their claims in the court of public opinion.
There’s the outrage with no consequences. Of course, every time a player is racially targeted, many people come out and try to say they’re outraged. “There’s no place for that in this game,” they’ll say with good intentions. However, the outrage doesn’t end with consequences. Teams are rarely fined, and if they are, it’s nothing they can’t handle. The consequences aren’t even slaps on the wrist...they’re light finger taps, as if you were asking someone for the time. Because of that, fans who exhibit this behavior go on unchecked, finding another target down the line, and the conversation seemingly starts over, and the clock resets.
There’s also the issue of fans, pundits, coaches, and executives who think they know what the best reaction for players is. Whether it’s continuing to play or leaving the field, the solution is to recognize one thing must always be acknowledged and understood: however the player chooses to react must be received as the best way to handle it. Telling players how they should react is not the way to handle it. Finally, they need allies. Their teammates, coaches, and teams need to have the backs of these players when racist abuse comes their way. They shouldn’t be criticized for their reaction or showing emotion. They shouldn’t be forced to do anything they don’t want to do. If a teammate wants to walk off the field in protest, the rest of the team should be ready to not just follow their teammate, but to walk with them and show that the decision is theirs and that it is supported.
If there’s one issue that needs to be carried beyond the walls of Black History Month, it’s ending racism in soccer. This dark stain on the game’s history and the world’s history is something that needs to be addressed in a forceful way that will not simply seek to deter, but to provide meaningful consequences that will end this behavior once and for all. From lifetime bans from the game or even jail time for the individuals found to be the source, to serious points deductions, fines in the tens of millions, seasons behind closed doors, or even relegation or permanent league banishment for teams whose fans continue to racially taunt players unabated, something needs to happen and it needed to happen yesterday, last month, last year, last decade, last millenium.
Serie A’s consistent problem with racism, in the past year and before that, shows that they’re not fully up for tackling the problem. FIFA and the confederations need to band together to seriously address this problem, and it needs to happen now. It needs to happen in the boardrooms, in the backrooms, in the tailgate lots and at the bars. It should be discussed among friends and strangers. Otherwise, the racism clock will continue to be reset and the game will proceed down a path to a place where it is no longer viewed as beautiful by black people.
For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.