Sun | Oct 25, 2020

Tanya Lee | Kicking racism out of football

Published:Friday | September 6, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Another week, another full diet of the most racially tinged moments in football. We’ve seen this play out right across society, where there is a shocking resurgence of racism far and wide.

Of course, football is in many respects a microcosm of society in general, and it seems that FIFA and UEFA have a serious problem on their hands: how to control racism in football.

Just this season alone, the headlines surrounding Manchester United’s biggest names in Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford have had very little to do with football and more to do with the racial slurs meted out to both players on Twitter after their respective missed penalties. England has had its fair share of problems related to racism.

But nowhere has it been more prevalent than Italy, where just this week, Romelu Lukaku has faced somewhat of a baptism of fire at his new club, Inter Milan, where he was on the receiving end of racist “monkey” chants from opposing fans of Cagliari Football Club.

But if that wasn’t bad enough, the reaction of the Inter fans themselves tell a harrowing tale of just how racism is alive and well in that country.

Inter ultras (a structured fan group within the club), in responding to Lukaku’s shock, decided to write an open letter to their new, beloved striker to express to him that the actions of Cagliari fans were not racist, but rather, “a sign of respect”.

They wrote: “We are really sorry you thought that what happened in Cagliari was racist. You have to understand that Italy is not like many other North European countries where racism is a real problem … in Italy, we use some ways only to help our teams and to try to make our opponents nervous.”

The letter went on to make some appalling assertions, essentially legitimising the actions of Cagliari fans and suggesting that this was par for the course in Italy.

“When you declare that racism is a problem to be fought in Italy, you just help the repression against all football fans, including us, and you contribute to create a problem that is not really there, not in the way that is perceived in other countries,” they wrote.

Essentially, the letter may have dealt a worse blow to Lukaku than the actions of the opposing fans themselves. This was essentially a Belgian who was being told that in Italy, racism is just part of the game, and, as such, he should just get on with the game and keep those goals coming. I can’t imagine his mental space knowing that he suits up to score goals for legions of fans who victim-blame in 2019!


In Italy, national identity seems steeped in systematised racism and xenophobia. History and sociology tell the harrowing tale of a nation that invaded and colonised numerous African states and points us to a land currently divided across social strata.

There have long been headlines about the extraordinary anti-immigrant sentiments that have flourished in Italy, with racism meted out to blacks, the ‘Romani,’ the ‘Gypsies’, and a clear divide between northern and southern Italians. Based on numerous headlines I’ve encountered, European Union immigration rules are often disregarded. A neo-fascist group once threw a bunch of bananas at a Congolese-born Italian immigrant who rose to prominence as a state minister.

The social fabric of Italy leaves much to be desired, and, of course, football is no exception. It explains why Inter fans, the opposition, and the League would see this as much ado about nothing. It’s deeply entrenched.

Just last April, former Juventus forward Moise Kean was subjected to the same type of abuse: monkey chants from the Cagliari fans upon scoring a penalty. His coach and one of his teammates defended the fans by suggesting that he was to blame because, somehow, he provoked the fans.

Sadly, there is not one push of a button that will somehow change the mindset of Italians or their football fans who accept racism as just “part of the game”. It is now up to football’s regulatory bodies to step in and take strong action to protect the sport and its players.

I suggest the imposition of bans on clubs. They should feel it where it hurts. Sometimes society analyses its ills through the lens of others. Jamaica’s blatant homophobia was tackled through bans in the entertainment industry. Maybe football can lead that cultural shift in Italy.

One love.

Tanya Lee is a Caribbean sports marketer, author, and publicist. Follow her @tanyattlee on Instagram.