Romelu Lukaku is a football star and goal-scoring machine. He has hit the net 113 times in 252 Premier League appearances and is the Belgian national team’s all-time top striker. Last month, he transferred to Inter Milan from Manchester United for a reported £74m. On 26 August, he scored on his debut in Serie A – Italy’s first division. For many football fans across Europe, Lukaku is both a legend and role model.
There is a “but” coming … and it concerns Lukaku’s skin colour. In many respects, Lukaku is a marvel. But he is a black marvel and, for a minority of fans, club officials – and even some players – this overshadows everything else. Whether out of bigotry or ignorance, Lukaku’s ethnicity – he is of Congolese descent – shapes and distorts their perception of an exceptional man and athlete.
Racism in football, as in other areas of life, is nothing new. What may be changing, however, is the political and social acceptability, in some quarters, of discrimination on the basis of race, gender and faith. Across Europe, the rise of far-right political leaders, ultra-nationalist and populist agendas, and divisive, xenophobic and anti-migrant narratives is facilitating and encouraging the sort of racist abuse that Lukaku and other black or Asian players suffer.
Football authorities and individual clubs have launched numerous anti-racism initiatives in recent years. Pressure groups such as Football Against Racism in Europe (Fare) and Kick It Out have raised awareness and changed attitudes. But football does not exist in a vacuum. It reflects and amplifies negative societal trends. In some ways, football is a barometer for our times. It gives a measure of the problem. And the problem is getting worse.
That, at least, is Lukaku’s personal view, tweeted after he was subjected to monkey chants by some home fans during Inter’s match against Cagliari in Sardinia last weekend. “We’ve been saying it for years and still no action. Ladies and gentlemen it’s 2019. Instead of going forward we’re going backwards,” he wrote.
The sense of regression was compounded by the reaction to Lukaku’s stand. Although Cagliari have a history of racist incidents, the Italian league’s top disciplinary official said he needed more evidence to decide whether punishment was warranted. In a statement, the club dutifully described the taunting of Lukaku as unacceptable but was plainly more exercised about what it called “outrageous accusations and silly stereotypes addressed to Cagliari supporters and the Sardinian people”.
Worse still, Inter supporters known as ultras defended the Cagliari fans, saying they were just trying to put Lukaku off his game. “We are really sorry you thought that what happened in Cagliari was racist,” a Curva Nord Facebook post said. “You have to understand that Italy is not like many other north European countries where racism is a REAL problem.”
Delusional excuses aside, it is certainly true that the disease is Europe-wide – but Italy seems particularly sick. When the Juventus striker Moise Kean was abused in April, a teammate and his manager accused him of provoking the abuse. This is the footballing equivalent of saying a rape victim asked for it. Fare has warned that the Italian game might have to be put into “special measures”. Under pressure, Serie A has announced yet another anti-racism initiative.
In England, the Manchester United star Marcus Rashford was recently subjected to foul abuse on social media, and Manchester City player Raheem Sterling, who spoke out against racism last year, is a frequent target. Both men are black. Last month, a French Ligue 1 match between Nice and Marseille was halted after fans waved homophobic banners – a reminder that discrimination has many faces.
An Observer survey last season found that racism in football is on the rise across Europe, in line with the concurrent rise in antisemitic incidents, hostility towards migrants, gender-related discrimination and a gloomy, overall picture of increasing intolerance. The increase extends from Sunday-morning park football up to international competitions. In April, Montenegro and Hungary were fined for their fans’ racist behaviour during games with England and Slovakia respectively.
“If you don’t have diversity in places of power like boardrooms, you can’t have the right decisions in terms of sanctions,” he said.
“The real racism lies in the fact that none of these institutions has representatives that can actually understand what Romelu is going through.”
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of this pan-European crisis of intolerance is the distance maintained by most political leaders. In the World Cup and other prestige competitions, politicians queue up to be pictured with winning teams and their stars. In France, the multi-ethnic makeup of the national team is presented as proof of a successful, integrated society.
That’s a highly contentious claim. But at least Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, is trying. In July, he called for an end to the “culture of hate” and said matches should be halted when abuse occurred. “We cannot become accustomed to homophobia and racism on the pretext that we are in a football stadium.” Macron also said that pay discrimination against women footballers should cease.
Yet, by and large, national politicians say the right things about discrimination in sport when required but do little. Worse still, rightwing populist leaders in Italy, Germany, eastern Europe and Russia actively celebrate intolerance. The next time a black player is abused, Italians in particular should look for a connection with the rise of Matteo Salvini and like-minded xenophobes. Fittingly perhaps, his party is called the League.
The Guardian Sport