By Tariq Panja
To those present at Cagliari’s Stadio Sardegna on Sunday, the sounds were familiar.
As Inter Milan’s new Belgian striker, Romelu Lukaku, stepped up to kick what would turn out to be a match-winning penalty, Cagliari fans behind the goal engaged in a prolonged round of monkey chants. They continued as the shot by Lukaku, who is black, struck the back of the net.
The outburst was not the first of its kind in the arena — Cagliari fans racially abused a black Juventus player last season — and it was swiftly condemned after video of the incident circulated on social media. But much of Italy seemed to react with a shrug of the shoulders.
Cagliari defended its fans’ honour in a statement. League officials announced that at least for now, there would be no discipline. Even Inter’s fans defended the behaviour in a letter to their new star.
The message to Lukaku, who joined Inter from Manchester United in August, seemed to be: Don’t take it personally, this is Italy.
The ugly incident was not the first episode of racist behaviour in Italian soccer, but the reaction to it highlighted efforts to brush such behavior under the carpet. When the young Juventus striker Moise Kean was subjected to similar abuse at Cagliari last season — one of a string of high-profile cases recently at the stadium — his coach and one of his teammates initially blamed him for provoking it.
Sunday’s incident brought similar deflections. Cagliari called the suggestion that its fans might be racist “outrageous.” The body tasked with investigating the matter said Tuesday there was not enough proof to impose sanctions on Cagliari.
Perhaps most troublingly for Lukaku, a group representing a section of Inter’s supporters released a statement on Facebook purporting to educate Lukaku in the “ways” of Italian soccer.
“We understand that it could have seemed racist to you, but it is not like that,” the fan group, L’Urlo della Nord — Scream of the North — said. “In Italy we use some ‘ways’ only to ‘help our teams’ and to try to make our opponents nervous, not for racism but to mess them up.”
It said the use of racist comments did not mean fans were racist, only that they were trying to “help” their team.
“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,” the statement continued.
Lukaku urged soccer officials to “react strongly on all cases of discrimination,” but Italy’s history in dealing with the problem has not inspired hope.
While Serie A is not the only major European league where players of colour have been subjected to racist abuse — players in England recently urged executives from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to do more to stamp out widespread racial abuse on their platforms — the frequency of incidents, coupled with the lack of punitive measures, has been eye-catching.
In December, Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly was abused during a game against Inter Milan. In 2018, striker Michy Batshuayi, then playing for Borussia Dortmund, claimed that he was racially abused during a game at Atalanta, in Bergamo. French star Blaise Matuidi has been subjected to abuse at Cagliari and Verona.
On occasion, players who have appealed to officials have found themselves punished instead. In 2017, Ghanaian player Sulley Muntari, then playing for Pescara, walked off the field during a game at Cagliari after the referee gave him a yellow card for complaining about racist chanting from the crowd. He was later suspended for a game.
Problems with racism have not been limited to fan behaviour. In 2014, soccer’s global governing body, FIFA, and Europe’s governing body, UEFA, banned Italian soccer official Carlo Tavecchio — then serving as the president of Italy’s soccer federation — for six months after he spoke of a fictional African player “eating bananas” before coming to Italy.
Piara Powar, the executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe, said the combination of racist fan behavior and the rise of far-right politicians had created a “powder-keg situation” in Italy. Powar estimated there were about nine major racist incidents in Serie A last season, suggesting the national federation was incapable of tackling the problem.
“We think the FA right now need to be put on special measures,” Powar said. “UEFA and FIFA need to step in and threaten them with suspension if they can’t get this sorted. It’s endemic in Italy, more so than any other country.”
Italy’s reputation appears to have put some black players off moving to teams there.
“And here’s the reason why I decided not to play there when I could,” Demba Ba, a Senegalese striker now playing in Turkey, wrote on Twitter in reaction to the statement released by Inter’s fan group. “And at that point I wish all the black players would get out of this league! Surely it won’t stop their stupidity and hate but at least they won’t affect other races!”
And here’s the reason why I decided not to play there when I could… And at that point I wish all the black players would get out of this league! Surely it won’t stop their stupidity and hate but at least they won’t affect other races. https://t.co/whu1XexYmy
— Demba Ba (@dembabafoot) September 4, 2019
Lukaku, a Belgian born to Congolese parents who spoke out about experiencing racism before the 2018 World Cup in Russia, called on the soccer authorities and companies that run social networks — where racist comments made toward players from minority backgrounds are commonplace — to do more.
“We’ve been saying it for years and still no action,” he wrote. “Ladies and gentlemen it’s 2019.”
In response to the negative publicity surrounding the Lukaku incident, much of it from outside Italy, Serie A announced this week that it would create an anti-racism campaign to start in October featuring a player from each of its 20 teams.
“Racism is a cultural problem so everyone’s commitment will be needed, from experts to fans, to promote a positive, consistent and appropriate model of support for a civilized country like Italy through its stadiums,” the league said.