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Racism in football: Are Italy's Ultras the problem or the solution?

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Lazio fans light flares before the match against Celtic on November 7.
Lazio fans light flares before the match against Celtic on November 7. -
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Outrage over monkey chants aimed at Brescia striker Mario Balotelli during a match in Verona last week is just the most recent example of racist abuse in Italian football. Balotelli threatened to walk off the pitch after the chants.

In the days since, a member of the Verona ‘Ultras’ has tried to explain away the chants, arguing it was an example of “irreverence” rather than racism.

“We have an identity culture of a certain kind, we are irreverent supporters,” the fan said. “We make fun of bald players, the one with long hair, the southern player and the player of colour but not with political or racist instincts. This is folklore, it stops all there.”

Tellingly, he added that Balotelli, who was born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents, “has Italian citizenship ... but he can never be completely Italian.”

Balotelli, who has suffered racist abuse throughout his career, responded by kicking the ball into the crowd and threatening to leave the pitch, but was dissuaded from doing so by players on both sides. The Verona coach, Ivan Juric, denied the chants took place at all.

“Balotelli has the strength to speak out. But his voice is often isolated. The response of his teammates and Hellas Verona players in the incident at the weekend shows that he was alone.” Mark Doidge, director of the Anti-Discrimination Division of Football Supporters Europe, told Euronews.

Doidge contrasts the incident in Italy with the UK, where both sets of players at a match between Haringey Borough and Yeovil Town and their managers stopped an FA Cup qualifier and actually left the pitch in response to racist chanting from a section of the stands.

“This is when real change can take place,” he said.

Romelu Lukaku

In the past the Italian league, Serie A, has avoided sanctions following chanting incidents - most recently declining to act when Inter Milan’s Romelu Lukaku was racially abused by fans - but Verona was punished with a partial stadium ban after the abuse of Balotelli.

Typically, however, such punishment leads to defiance, both Verona’s manager and the city’s mayor still deny that the abuse took place, while local councillors have called for Balotelli to be subject to legal action or defamation. Lukaku was even criticised by the Ultras in his own club, Inter Milan, for making an issue of racist abuse.

“A lot of Italian ultras have explained away their monkey chants against black players in those terms: "It's not racist. We're just trying to say the most offensive thing we can," says James Montague, the author of an upcoming book, 1312: Among the Ultras.

The curva, the terrace, whatever you want to call it is a mirror on society.
James Montague
Author, 13:12: Among the Ultras

“I don't buy that. There is a genuine connection between some groups and the far right, especially in Italy and eastern Europe, even Germany.”

Last month, fans of Italian club Lazio were filmed making Nazi salutes as they marched through the streets ahead of a Europa league tie with Celtic. In 2018, the club was fined 50,000 euros after fans distributed stickers showing Holocaust victim Anne Frank wearing a football shirt of their bitter rivals AS Roma.

“There is a problem with racism and ultra nationalism in Europe. The curva, the terrace, whatever you want to call it is a mirror on society. Racism and anti-semitism is a problem in society and that makes its way into some of the fan culture.” says Montague.

That said, while the Ultras are often associated with racism in the stands, at some clubs it has been the Ultras that have fought back against it. In Germany, there is a strong anti- commercial, anti-anti racist and anti-sexist culture among the Ultras at a few prominent clubs, including Borussia Dortmund - well known for its ‘No Beer for Racists’ campaign.

Mario Balotelli

For Doidge, the labelling of Ultras as racists by politicians and football clubs makes them a convenient “folk devil” for football’s problems, and fails to take into account the structural racism that excludes many people of colour from the game. “The corridors of power from governing bodies, football federations, and clubs - are not very diverse,” he says.

The solution, he says, is for fans and players to fight back against racism and racist abuse from the stands - as they didn’t in Verona, and they did in Haringey.

That said, punishments such as stadium bans have also had an affect, even if they punish the majority of football fans that are not racists for the small minority that are. This is particularly true in competitions like the Champions League, which are massive money-spinners for football clubs.

Stadium bans mean the clubs lose huge revenues - it's the richest club competition in the world after all -- and so the club's strictly police it. If you go and see Red Star Belgrade for instance, you won't see any pyro in the north side during a Champions League game,” says Montague.

“So it can be stopped. But is it really dealing with the root causes of it?”

Life in the lower leagues

The events in the UK demonstrate that racism in the stands is by no means limited to the highest levels of club football, with Yeovil Town in the fifth tier of the English league. In Italy, the same applies.

Last week, a 24-year-old player from Senegal, Mbengue Dara, was subject to a 13 day ban after he hit back at an opponent who racially abused him during a match in Bergamo, near Milan.

Dara, who has been in Italy for 15 years, referred to a white player as a "gypsy" after he had been called a "n*****" and told to go back to his country. Overhearing only Dara's comments, the referee sent him off.

Rather than shrug off the offence - as he was urged to by his club - Dara has decided to quit football altogether.

"Football is a passion for me, not a job: I do it for fun, but if I get insulted I stop being happy." he told Euronews. "I know that if I come back, I'd be insulted again, here among the teams of low Bergamo."

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