When people think of soccer in Europe racism is not the first thing that comes to mind. However, racism is a bigger problem than you might think. Racism is a problem throughout European soccer. As an example in a high profile match between England and Bulgaria in October 2019, the game was stopped twice as Bulgarian fans directed Nazi salutes and monkey chants towards black English players. Bulgaria was already subject to a partial stadium ban, blocking 5,000 fans from games due to racist incidents earlier in the season. After this particular incident the team was fined $83,000 and banned for two home games. England’s anti-racism and pro-inclusion group for soccer (Kick It Out) released information demonstrating that discrimination in religion, gender, race and sexual orientation had increased 32% from previous seasons. Racist incidents made up 65% of those statistics. Although racism is a problem throughout European soccer it is especially prominent in Italy.
Racism in Italian soccer is a long standing problem. Serie A, the top league of Italian soccer, has tried to combat racism but it is going to take a long time to uproot racist habits. Black players are not only harassed by fans but also by the media and people working for the clubs. In many cases clubs are not penalized for their fans racist behaviors. In September of 2019 Luciano Passirani, a sports commentator for the Milan-based local TV Telelombardia, was sacked for making an ugly racist comment about Lukaku, a soccer player. One of the country’s highest ranking soccer officials was accused of trying to conceal racist chants instead of addressing them. Racism runs deep in the industry.
One player who has been subjected to racist comments is Mario Balotelli. In November of 2019 in a match between Hellas Verona and Brescia, racists comments caused the match to be ended. Balotelli posted on his instagram: “‘The ‘people’ of this curva who made the monkey chants. Shame on you….#notoracism.’’’ In another incident Juventus fans said “non ci sono negri Italiani” to him which means there are no Italian blacks.
Another example is with Romelu Lukaku. In September of 2019, during a match between his team, Inter Milan, and Caglairi he was subjected to racist chants by Cagliari fans. Later super fans that supported his team wrote him a letter stating: “‘We are really sorry you thought that what happened in Cagliari was racist. Please consider this attitude of Italian fans as a form of respect for the fact they are afraid of you for the goals you might score against their teams and not because they hate you or they are racist.’” This shows that black soccer players are not even safe from racist comments from their own fans.
The Observatory of Racism in Football in 2011-2016 documented 249 racist incidents in Italian soccer. In 2017-2018, 60 incidents were reported. Twenty Serie A’s clubs wrote a letter stating: “‘Images of players being racially abused in Italian football have been viewed and discussed all around the world this season and that shames us all.’” Serie A is trying to stop the spread of racism in the sport but some of their ideas have been very controversial. They had Simone Fugazzotto do three paintings for their “No-to Racism” campaign. The monkeys were painted to be Western, Asian and Black while in club colors. The artist said that he wanted to show that we are all monkeys but the public backlash was severe. Serie A has also been working with UNAR, an Italian anti-racism agency, to develop a plan to implement during the 2020-2021 season.
Racism remains a big problem in soccer especially in Italy. Efforts to help black soccer players feel safer and comfortable while they are playing are underway but they have a long way to go. Anti-immigration sentiments have been on the rise in Italy for years. To fix racism on the soccer field it needs to be dealt with in society first. Rory Smith said in his article, “Ending the problem of racism in society is not soccer’s job. All that soccer can do is ensure that it does not feel like a safe space for those that hold these views to express them.”