After the latest instance of racism, Cagliari will probably be heavily punished. But we shouldn’t pretend that things like this can solve the problem of racism in football…
Last season, Inter were forced to play two games behind closed doors after the Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly was racially abused during a match in December. Was this the Italian authorities getting tough on racism? Could this be the start of a brave new approach to combatting this vile scourge?
Sort of. In a parallel move that would have been funny if it wasn’t so hair-tearingly stupid, Serie A also saw fit to ban Koulibaly for two matches, after he was sent off in the game for receiving two yellow cards: the first for a foul (that was, by the way, astoundingly soft) and the second when Koulibaly sarcastically applauded referee Paolo Mazzoleni for issuing that yellow card. This was after Napoli manager Carlo Ancelotti had asked Mazzoleni three times to suspend the game because of the previous racial abuse.
It’s this sort of foot-shooting, the lack of comprehension that being racially abused might just have had an impact on Koulibaly’s state of mind and maybe he didn’t really need to be suspended for two games after it, that gives the impression Italian football doesn’t take racial abuse seriously.
Perhaps they will do something to change that perception after the latest incident, when Romelu Lukaku was abused while playing for Inter against Cagliari this last weekend. Perhaps they will finally do something tangible to the club where Sulley Muntari, Samuel Eto’o and Moise Kean have all suffered similar abuse.
It matters, of course. It matters that those who abused Lukaku are punished. It matters that something is done to Cagliari, and it matters that in response to this Serie A announced a new anti-racism drive that will be rolled out in the autumn.
But arguably it matters more that any action taken doesn’t make anyone kid themselves that it’s going to stop racism. Call it punishment, call it a deterrent, call it whatever: just don’t call it a solution.
On the Totally Football Show last week, Carl Anka made this point clear. “The problem with this is everyone tries to ‘fight racism’ as if racism is a discreet thing you can punch or clamp or put in prison,” he said. “What racism is, is a disease like cholera in the water, and [fighting it is like] trying to put a cloud in a headlock.”
Nobody is going to solve or cure or fight discrimination with a few behind closed doors games. Just as you won’t solve or cure or fight it by Twitter monitoring the top 50 players on their platform, or other players boycotting social media in solidarity. All of this is essentially well-meaning, but it carries the implication that it’s going to be some sort of magic bullet that will make the problem go away.
Of course, anyone sensible knows this is not the case. Racism will never disappear, and the best we can hope for is that it will shrink. So for now, something that everyone can do is listen when this happens to the people it happens to.
“Many players in the last month have suffered from racial abuse… I did yesterday too,” said Lukaku on Instagram. “Football is a game to be enjoyed and we shouldn’t accept any form of discrimination that will put our game in shame.
“Ladies and gentlemen it’s 2019 – instead of going forwards we’re going backwards. I hope the football federations all over the world react strongly on all cases of discrimination.
“Social media platforms (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook) need to work better as well with football clubs because every day you see at least a racist comment under a post of a person of colour. We’ve been saying it for years and still no action.”
That last bit is the key. People sit up and pay attention when racism is as overt as situations like Sunday in Cagliari, but are happier to look the other way or not take it as seriously when it’s not as obvious.
We've been saying it for years and still no action.
It’s easy to write off racists on Twitter as internet trolls, or dismiss old men on TV making lazy assumptions as just dinosaurs to be ignored, or even wave off the loaded language that is still used about players of colour.
But all of that feeds into the most overt racial abuse. Nobody goes from being prejudice-free to making monkey noises at Inter’s No.9 without being surrounded by a culture that normalises racism, that ‘others’ sportspeople of colour. People have to jump on and condemn these other forms of racism as well. And we have to listen.
This time, the Italian authorities will probably come down heavily on Cagliari to make an example of them, but that will be more about trying to convince the world they’re being serious about racism, rather than it being an effective way of combatting it.
It will take something much longer, much more considered, much harder to do that.
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