As displays of racist behaviour within Italian football and its authorities continues to worsen, Francesca Di Fazio investigates why Italy’s sporting culture is so marred by acts of racism.
As I often say, Roman Catholicism might well be Italy’s official religion, but football is what the people follow. As I am aware, Britain has a great football tradition and prides itself on inventing the game, but in Italy il calcio is really something else. It is not just the most popular sport among Italians, it is a national cult. In our very gendered culture, playing and watching football is a prerogative of Italian masculinity. Small talk amongst Italian men usually concerns the latest matches. Not only do newspapers have a football column, but many daily publications have sport – which means primarily football – as their sole topic, and this is also the case for an embarrassing number of TV programmes on private and public broadcasters alike. And it doesn’t end with games. During the hiatus between seasons, calciomercato – the football transfer market – becomes the main public concern. Even gossip often revolves around football players and their private lives. Imagine the Premier League being the main object of public debate in the UK, enjoying roughly the same media coverage as national politics. That’s how important the Serie A is to Italian society.
It is therefore quite disturbing – and yet it makes perfect sense – that calcio and its “expanded universe” act as a catalyst for the darkest forces of society. Remember Lazio fans parading through Buchanan Street while doing the Roman salute? In 2017, they abused the image of Anne Frank to offend their rivals of AS Roma through antisemitic slurs. In the early 1990s, they threatened and verbally abused their own midfielder Aron Winters for being black and Jewish. Lazio supporters are not an isolated case. Italian football fans, especially the so-called ultrà groups, made of hardcore supporters who operate like a militia, regularly use racist rhetoric and gestures to abuse the supporters and the players of opponent teams. This affinity with racism and antisemitism depends on the fact that ultrà groups are often politicised and most of them subscribe to neo-fascist ideologies. Moreover, members are often involved in illegal activities, such as ticket-touting, and some are allegedly linked to mafia organisations. Despite all this, they enjoy a certain prestige within football clubs, and their views are valued, especially by club presidents. I suspect that the regular profit that organised supporters ensure to football clubs is only part of the reason. The tacit tolerance for the hyper-masculine, violent and racist ultrà subculture might as well be the extreme expression of a society that has never effectively confronted its bleak recent history, marked by a fascist dictatorship and a largely neglected colonial past. Here, football intersects with national culture in the worst possible way.
At the authority level, the Serie A’s responses to the toxic environment underlying the game have been inadequate and, in some cases, terribly inappropriate. Recently, huge embarrassment was caused by the new anti-racism campaign, whose lead artist has deemed a very fitting choice to draw three monkeys to represent human racial identities. Any comment on the idiocy of the idea would be superfluous, and the league itself has disowned it following international outcry. But this story hints once again at how unequipped – and probably unwilling – Italian society is to talk about and take action against racism. At the beginning of 2019, the rules regarding racism at stadiums were reportedly strengthened, but they are still ridiculously insufficient compared to the English model. All that can be done in the face of racist abuse coming from the terraces is interrupting or suspending the match. In extreme cases public authorities can fine the clubs or close the curva – the section where the ultrà groups are – for a couple of matches. The unpleasant impression is that most of the public wouldn’t endorse more radical solutions, such as declaring ultrà groups illegal and prosecuting individuals for racist behaviours. Without meaningful legal action, we cannot promote a culture of intransigence on racism and other discriminations. In many cases it would be enough to apply the existing Italian norm that punishes hate crimes in general and particularly criminalises public gestures and organisations of openly fascist nature. Instead, now as before, the general indifference towards racist incidents in and outside stadiums fuels a sense of impunity around behaviours that are unacceptable and – I’d like to remark – illegal.
Football in Italy is really treated as a religion, and the critical mindset that this involves is perpetuating our most serious social maladies. Even more than the slurs, the monkey noises and the bananas raining down on the field, the league’s – and our society’s – inability to talk about racism without aggravating the situation acts as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. Starting on the football pitch, Italy could use the opportunity to face its culturally embedded racism, a conversation that my country has dodged for far too long.