Several weeks ago, a black footballer playing in Italy’s top division was racially abused during a game of football, with monkey chants directed his way throughout the entire game. Following widespread anger, the Italian football authorities promised to look into the matter. They have just announced that they will not be taking action against the club whose supporters gave that abuse, stating that the chants were of “objectively limited relevance” – whatever that means. The Italian football authorities, the FIGC, have therefore decided, in effect, that the conduct of these fans is absolutely fine. After all, a lack of punishment equals encouragement to do more of the same.
I feel very sorry for Moise Kean, the young Juventus forward who received this abuse. I feel very angry at the football club of Cagliari, for creating an atmosphere where so many of its fans felt comfortable expressing their prejudices. I feel angriest of all, though, at the FIGC, because I suspect I know what they are doing with this decision: they are attempting to exhaust everyone who is opposed to racism. I suspect they are doing this because of the language they used: it is designed to infuriate. It is a form of “gaslighting”, where the person making a rightful accusation or sharing a just grievance faces such flagrant denial that they are made to doubt their own sanity.
Look at the language: that to call a black person a monkey is of “objectively limited relevance” to the issue of racism. It is actually difficult to think of something more racist than calling a black person a monkey – just last week, a leading British radio presenter was sacked by the BBC for his careless implication that he was doing so. Yet the FIGC are telling us that this doesn’t fall within their definition of racism. If this doesn’t, then what does?
“Objectively limited relevance”. What a revealing statement. It is the kind of statement you make when you feel so powerful that you face no repercussions for it. It is the kind of statement you make when you quietly agree with what those fans were chanting, because there is simply no way that anyone who cares about or is close friends with black people could allow a human being to be subjected to such humiliation without consequences.
Away from the football stadiums, humiliation kills. Cagliari is the capital of Sardinia, an island which in recent years has seen the arrival of many people fleeing conflict in Africa; many of whom have skin just as dark as Moise Kean. Many of those making their way to Cagliari drowned in the process, and one major reason they were allowed to drown is because a group of policymakers got together and effectively decided that those monkeys deserved it; that it was not worth spending their budget on boats to patrol the Mediterranean and rescue those desperately crossing the water. Somewhere a group of policymakers, in their own way just as callous as the FIGC, sat in a room and decided that black people were objectively less keen on being treated as fully human.
The FIGC are clearly expecting this issue to go away, since they are aware that we are living in the Age of Shamelessness – where the more outrageous your act of bigotry, the more likely you are to get away with it. And let us make no mistake – their decision is an act of bigotry. Like the policies that allow African refugees to drown, the FIGC’s refusal to protect Moise Kean is the ultimate monkey chant. But the FIGC are counting on one thing, and in this they may have been complacent; they have calculated that not enough Italians care about racism for this issue to remain controversial. Yet in March this year, a vast crowd took to the streets to protest against racism, with an estimated 200,000 people gathering in Milan. The resistance is not only there in Italy, it is proactive and it is organised.
Just a few days ago, I was playing football in Italy, at sadly a far less distinguished level than Moise Kean – though, thankfully, with a far better reception than he got from the fans at Cagliari. I was there as a guest of the towns of Tito and Matera, which during my stay shared the title of European Capital of Culture; I was taking part in a tournament of writers from Italy, Germany, Sweden and England, where England finished a creditable third. The most important action, though, took place away from the field. One night in Tito, the locals put on an event to welcome us; a gathering of young and old, black and white, children running this way and that, while a strikingly confident singer belted out a seemingly endless stream of karaoke hits. Right there, in the middle of small-town Italy, if anyone had tried anything like a monkey chant they would have been shown the door.
Seeing the fallout of the Kean affair, I think I needed to be reminded that there are many, many people like those open-hearted and open-minded residents of Tito; I needed to be reminded that, at times like these, many of them will speak up. It is only if they do, whether that be at dinner tables, in the stands or in boardrooms across Italy, that racist attitudes will become obsolete; that they will become, in the words of the FIGC, of objectively limited relevance to the future.