Italian soccer needs a Colin Kaepernick to illuminate racism problems

A fan holds up a banana, a frequent occurrence in Italian soccer stadiums.
A fan holds up a banana, a frequent occurrence in Italian soccer stadiums.

As a sportswriter for 40 years in the U.S., I never had a favorite athlete. At least, I didn’t care how any of them did on the field. I favored athletes who performed better in interviews. The better the quote, the better the athlete. It was as simple as that.

Living in Rome, I now have a favorite NFL player. I’ve never interviewed him. I’ve never seen him play in person. But what Colin Kaepernick has done has shaken the U.S. beyond its borders. This backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers has transcended sport all the way to Rome where I have watched his every move and wavered from pride to disgust at America’s reaction.

During the national anthem Aug. 26, Kaepernick chose to kneel instead of stand. He silently protested the massive racism happening in the U.S. Since then, other athletes, from high school players to U.S. women soccer players, are joining the protest. Meanwhile, the mass of redneck Americans are putting down their Donald Trump banners and lighting Kaepernick’s jersey in flames. Kaepernick recently appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

I bring this up because Italy badly needs a Colin Kaepernick. Racism has been as much a part of Italian soccer as corner kicks. Italy doesn’t play its national anthem before Serie A contests but it would illuminate the problem if someone, some time, showed up at a stadium wearing a red Kaepernick jersey. Who could do it? How about:

Kevin Constant
Kalidou Koulibaly

* Kevin Constant, the A.C. Milan defender from Guinea after fans from Atalanta threw bananas at him. Or …

* Kalidou Koulibaly, the defender for Napoli and Senegal’s national team whom Lazio fans booed every time he touched the ball at Rome’s Olympic Stadium. Or …

* David Guetta, the Jewish soccer commentator from Florence who, while waiting for a train outside Tottenham Hotspurs’ White Hart Lane stadium in London, had 20 Italian fans yell at him, “Guetta, a train to Mauthausen is waiting for you.” Mauthausen was a Jewish concentration camp in Austria.

Hey, Kaepernick could even peddle his jerseys to the Italian youth leagues. In the Tuscany seaside town of Forte dei Marmi, five black players for A.C. Milan’s developmental team walked off the field in tears after hearing racist taunts. They were 11.

Racism in Italian soccer is as rampant as immigration. From 2000-2014, according to the International Business Times, Italy’s pro leagues recorded 750 racist incidents. These aren’t just uneducated, right-wing fascists making headlines. Carlo Tavecchio, the president of FIGC, the governing body of Italian pro soccer, said last year during his campaign that African players get jobs too easily with Italian teams. Making up a blatantly racist African name, he said, “Here we get Opti Poba, who previously ate bananas and then suddenly becomes a first-team player … In England, he must demonstrate his curriculum and his pedigree.”

Arrigo Sacchi
Carlo Tavecchio

Arrigo Sacchi, who led Italy to the 1994 World Cup final in the U.S.,
said after watching Italian youth teams in the prestigious Viareggio Cup international tournament, “I’m not racist, I had (black Dutch player Frank) Rijkaard (at A.C. Milan), but to see so many colored players, to see so many foreigners, is an insult to Italian soccer.”

In the Lazio-Napoli match, the referee smartly stopped the game for a few minutes until the crowd stopped booing Koulibaly. After the game, then- Lazio manager Stefano Pioli was appalled — but not by the booing. “If I had been the referee I would not have stopped it. We also have players of color and they are treated well.”

Paolo Di Canio gives a Nazi salute to fans while playing for Lazio, a Roma club noted for racism.

Imagine fans in Detroit throwing bananas at Lebron James. Imagine NFL commissioner Roger Goodell saying there are too many black players in the league. Imagine Bryce Harper celebrating a home run with a Sieg Heil salute, similar to what Paolo Di Canio did when he played for Lazio. This is the same man who was recently fired from his TV analyst job for sporting a fascist Dux tattoo in honor of Benito Mussolini.

Soccer combats this with the societal equivalent of a yellow card. In other words, they give the Italian hand gesture of a backhand upward motion under their chin, meaning “So what?” Atalanta was fined only 40,000 euros for the banana incident. Lazio was fined 38,000 euros for racist chants at White Hart Lane. FIGC cleared Tavecchio of racism. FIFA, the world governing body, banned him for only six months. FIGC did nothing about the Boateng incident. UEFA, which governs European soccer, did nothing, saying it was outside its jurisdiction.

However, FIFA is distributing a lot of swell “Say No to Racism” T-shirts.

To be honest, racism in soccer nearly prevented me from retiring to Rome. It was the late spring of 2014 and I was at The Denver Post preparing for my move. Then I read about my beloved A.S. Roma’s game at Milan which had a wonderfully talented young player named Mario Balotelli. He is as Italian as any teammate on Italy’s national team. But he was born to Ghanian parents in Palermo, Sicily, moved to the Lombardy region of Northern Italy at 2 and at 3 was given up to a middle-class foster family. They raised him in the small Lombardy town of Concesio.

That day in Milan’s San Siro stadium, every time he touched the ball Roma’s large contingent of traveling fans started making monkey sounds.

I was shocked, embarrassed, angry and confused. Was I moving to a racist city? Was I supporting a racist club? This was something out of Major League Baseball in the 1950s, college football in the Deep South in the ‘60s. Some American expats who’d lived in Rome for 15 years talked me off the ledge. They asked me if I ever saw any racism when I lived here the first time from 2001-03. No. Had I ever met a racist in Rome. No.

So here I am. I’ve lived here in this stint 2 ½ years and I’ve heard only one racist comment. An EX friend, an Italian-Australian who spent half his life in Australia, told me of Pres. Obama, “A black man shouldn’t be president of a white country.” A Kenyan woman fluent in Italian once told me when she showed up to look at an apartment the surprised landlady who talked to her on the phone told her the flat was suddenly sold.

That’s it. When I lived in the U.S., the most racist industrialized country in the world, I heard that many incidents every week, often, surprisingly, from successful businesswomen. In fact, a Nigerian friend has lived in Rome for the past nine years playing goalkeeper for various lower-division pro teams around Rome. He said in that time he has experienced racism only once: A car drove by him late at night in the nightclub area near my apartment and a group of youths yelled the “N” word at him. He loves Rome.

However, when the soccer stadiums open their gates, the dregs of Italian society crawl out from under their rocks and fill the cheap seats where racism finds comfort in company. Like Donald Trump shepherding American racists, Italian soccer shepherds Italian racists. They are reaching back to a time in the 1940s when fascism was an accepted national movement, when Mussolini rode its wave to the head of the government — and the eventual destruction of the country.

It’s no coincidence that racism is following the same growth chart as immigration. According to the National Institute of Statistics, as of January 2015 foreign residents made up 8.3 percent of the population. In 1981 it was .003 percent. The resentment has gone beyond the rational view of more job competition. The East Europeans aren’t facing near the racism as the Africans. Cecile Kyenge was Italy’s Minister for Integration and Italy’s first black cabinet minister. National politicians have compared her to an orangutan. Critics have thrown bananas at her.

Fans of the Ukraine club Karpaty Lviv hold up a swastika banner during a match against Dynamo Kiev.

Of course, this isn’t just an Italian problem. On Sept. 15 A.S. Roma played a game in the Europa LeaguE at Viktoria Plzen in Plzen, the Czech town famous for inventing pilsner beer. Two sections of the stadium were closed off as punishment for racist chants during an August game against Ludogorets Razgrad, a Bulgarian team sporting eight players from Brazil.

What Kaepernick has done is force America to discuss a problem that isn’t close to getting solved. That’s after 50 unarmed black men were shot to death by white cops from January 2015 to July this year and after a man walked into a gun shop, legally bought a gun and killed nine people in a church because of the color of the skin. If you don’t think there’s a problem with racism in America, then you’re part of the problem.

Kaepernick’s stance has nothing to do with the military. It has nothing to do with the election. It has nothing to do with the economy. Kaepernick has one single focus: racism.

It’s a focus that’s needed in Italy. I never hear it discussed. It’s not written much in Italy’s sports dailies. The players don’t give many interviews about it. But it hangs over soccer like warplanes cruising over stadiums waiting to drop another bomb.

Italian soccer needs more than T-shirts. It needs jerseys. I wear an XL.