“You can’t delete racism. It’s like a cigarette. You can’t stop smoking if you don’t want to, and you can’t stop racism if people don’t want to.”
Six years have passed since Mario Balotelli spoke those words in an interview with Sports Illustrated. He was on top of the world, Italy’s No. 9 and fresh from a triumphant half-season at Milan. Signed from Manchester City during the January transfer window, he had scored 12 times in 13 games, carrying Milan to third place.
The magazine’s front cover depicted him walking on water. Yet even when so much seemed possible for the striker whose goals had obliterated Germany at Euro 2012, Balotelli acknowledged his powerlessness to stop football fans in his home country from abusing him for the color of his skin.
Returning to Italy this summer, after stints away at Liverpool, Nice and Marseille, he wondered if things had changed. “I hope with all my heart there won’t be any repeat of the things that happened when I was last here,” he said after signing for Brescia. “I hope Italy has taken some steps forward.”
He was destined to be disappointed. The Serie A season has witnessed several instances of players being racially abused, from Romelu Lukaku at Cagliari to Dalbert at Atalanta and Ronaldo Vieira during a home game for Sampdoria against Roma.
Balotelli was the target for monkey chants during Brescia’s game at Verona. In the 55th minute, he responded. Fighting to keep the ball in play down by the corner flag, Balotelli turned suddenly and lashed it up towards supporters.
Chaos ensued. The referee, Maurizio Mariani, booked Balotelli for unsportsmanlike behavior. Balotelli threatened to walk off. Players from both teams intervened, talking Balotelli down while also informing officials of the abuse he had received. Mariani waved off the yellow card and suspended the game, instructing the stadium announcer to warn fans it would be abandoned if the chants continued.
After a delay of almost five minutes, play resumed. Verona, already leading through a goal from Eddie Salcedo, extended their advantage through Matteo Pessina. Balotelli responded with a spectacular strike from the edge of the D, struck first time off his right instep into the top corner. It was not enough to rescue Brescia from a 2-1 defeat.
The situation only got worse after the final whistle, when the Verona manager, Ivan Juric, flatly denied any racist abuse had taken place. “I’m not afraid to say that nothing happened,” he said. “There was loud whistling and mockery but no racist chant. There was nothing. I am a Croatian and I hear ‘Gypsy piece of shit’ sometimes because unfortunately that is the tendency in Italy but today there was nothing.”
What possessed him to take such a hard line only he can know. In any case, he was wrong. Juric might not have heard the monkey chants but several of his players did and they were plainly audible on a fan-shot video that circulated on Sunday evening.
This has too often been the default mode for clubs whose fans stand accused of racist chanting: to mount an aggressive defense first – often calling into question the integrity of the victim – and ascertain the facts of what happened later. The Verona president, Maurizio Setti, supported his manager’s line, claiming his team’s supporters were simply “sarcastic, not racist”.
Verona will likely be punished. The independent observer sent to monitor this game heard the racist chants and included them in the official report – something that did not happen when Lukaku and Dalbert were verbally abused and which should allow the sporting justice greater scope for punishment.
Still, there are ambiguities that make the verdict hard to predict. According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, the observer only ascribed the monkey chants to a group of about 15 fans. Balotelli was booed and whistled by many more but we are into murky territory. What constitutes racist abuse rather than jeering of an opponent?
Regardless of the outcome, the discouraging thought is that once again nothing will change. This was a weekend when Roma’s game against Napoli was also suspended in response to territorial discrimination from Roma’s ultras. The initial warning from the stadium announcer was roundly ignored. Only the intervention of Edin Dzeko, encouraging fans to drown out the chants with cheers, seemed to get things back on track.
Balotelli’s assessment that you cannot force people not to be racist rings as true as ever. On the other hand, Italian football cannot absolve itself of responsibility. Clubs in other countries do a far more effective job of identifying individuals who engage in racist chanting and keeping them out of the stands.
This is a slow process and even with maximum commitment could not be achieved overnight. It is hard to see how it will ever happen at clubs whose first instinct is to accuse a victim of making it up.
The Guardian Sport