Mario Balotelli was subjected to racist abuse at the Stadio Bentegodi. This, somehow, is still up for debate in Italy. It is not about Italian football at this point, nor is it helpful to note all the recent incidents of racism in the Premier League, Ligue 1 and most blatantly in Bulgaria.
Calling for entire nations to be thrown out of various competitions is also not going to achieve anything, other than pinning a badge of wokeness on your lapel. It’s not going to happen, we all know that, because it’d be impractical and football is now such a business-oriented sport that nobody will put billions at risk thanks to a few idiots.
The problem I see when discussing this is a more fundamental concern: different nations and people within those countries have very different ideas of what constitutes racism.
I am proud of my Italian heritage, always will be, but I also have no shame in admitting it is a country decades behind Britain and even most of Europe in terms of race relations. Blackface is still shown on primetime television, the most popular quiz show has a regular skit where the host puts on a Chinese hat, pulls his eyes to make them ‘slitty’ and replaces all the Rs in his words with an L. This is a nation where Matteo Salvini and the Lega Nord are realistically now the most popular political party, where leaving a hundred refugees floating on the sea for weeks and weeks rather than letting them board is considered a wise policy decision.
How far behind are Italy? Last week, Parliament voted to institute a new commission to examine and fight hate speech, anti-Semitism and racism. The right-wing parties abstained and then refused to stand for the woman who proposed the commission, Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre, claiming the idea of clamping down on hate speech was “Orwellian” and “Soviet.”
Last month, Juan Jesus received offensive Instagram messages from a Roma supporter – his own club – and that man gave an interview with a major newspaper assuring he did call the Brazilian an ape and say he ought to be in a zoo, but that he was “certainly not racist.” We live in a world where people think they can say racist things and somehow not actually be racist. And they genuinely believe that.
Lazio President Claudio Lotito proudly declared during a speech about battling racism that their supporters weren’t just targeting black players, they also booed “those with normal skin.” And he didn’t see an issue with that wording at all.
Hellas Verona coach Ivan Juric and President Maurizio Setti argued passionately that their fans were being dragged through the mud because there was no racist chanting towards Balotelli. Helpfully, a Verona fan himself posted a video of the incident just before Balotelli kicked the ball into that very section of the stands, which he assured was proof that there was no racist abuse. The fact the clip contained clearly audible ‘monkey noises’ apparently slipped him by. “Do you hear racist abuse towards Balotelli? Or did the genius just want attention?” It is what the Twitterverse would call a perfect self-own.
Here lies the other problem we are all facing, and I mean everyone all over the world, so get off your high horses about Italy at this point: social media has changed the way people relate to each other. Mob mentalities are created, the false bravery afforded by anonymity, the idea all at once that celebrities have to see our messages – they appear in a timeline, don’t even have to click on your account or single you out – and are at our disposal because we pay to see their films/football matches/gigs, etc.
These are human beings. They owe you nothing other than a performance during the precise period you paid to partake in. You are not owed a selfie when they are going about their daily business. You are not owed a tweet, especially when asked with utter rudeness. And no, the celebrities are not ‘full of themselves’ or ‘forgetting who got you there’ if they happen to take affront to a complete stranger insulting them out of the blue.
Does social media breed racism? Perhaps. It certainly is taking away the thin veil of shame that many people had about expressing those views in public. Just look at the political discourse in Britain and America, those most ‘woke’ of nations who feel smug about the racism of other backwards countries and prefer to ignore the same scourge they face at home. Look at their media coverage of issues like immigration and national identity. The racism is always there, it’s just some nations and individuals accept the need to be politely ashamed of expressing it in public.
Maybe that’s the reason racist abuse is so rife in Italian football – many people in the stands and the media genuinely don’t understand calling someone an animal, something less than a human being, is racist rather than just banter or any other insult. We can’t blame football clubs for that. It’s all on society.