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Italian Football Must Change After Ugly Racism Directed at Kalidou Koulibaly

Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly was subjected to sustained racial abuse in a game against Inter
Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly was subjected to sustained racial abuse in a game against Inter

It was supposed to be a time to celebrate all Italian football had to offer. After officials had taken the decision to move the traditional Winter Break until after Christmas, Serie A fixtures were played on Boxing Day for the first time. Yet what followed – just one day after Christmas – was a terrible stain on the league, as Inter supporters inflicted sustained racial abuse on Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly during the evening fixture.

The Senegal international was visibly upset enough to receive a second yellow card for sarcastically applauding referee Paolo Mazzoleni, as the official did nothing to stop the match. This was even after several tannoy announcements at San Siro gave out warnings that the abuse must stop, events that were denounced on the European stage.

“FIFPro and UEFA jointly condemn the racist abuse aimed towards Napoli player Kalidou Koulibaly, last Wednesday during a league match at FC Internazionale in Milan,” a statement read. “We are very concerned by this unacceptable racist incident and by what appears on the surface to be a failure to respect the widely-recognised three-step anti-racism protocol.”

Under this three-step system, referees are given the power to halt the match, suspend the match and finally abandon the match if warnings over the tannoy are repeatedly ignored by the perpetrators of the racist chanting.

“Koulibaly was certainly distressed,” Napoli boss Carlo Ancelotti revealed after the match. “Usually, he is very calm and professional, but he was subjected to monkey noises throughout the game. We asked three times for some action to be taken, but the match continued. We keep being told play can be halted, but when? After four or five announcements?

“Maybe we have to take matters into our own hands next time and stop play ourselves. They’ll probably make us forfeit the game if we walk off, but we are prepared to do it. It’s not good for Italian football, seeing this.”

Mazzoleni made a grave error in failing to stop the play, and once the match had finished, there was much talk of cancelling the next fixtures which were due to be played just three days later on December 29th, another date in which Serie A fixtures had never been held in the history of the league.

“It’s something we’ll consider,” FIGC President Gabriele Gravina told Il Messaggero the next day. “Now we need to take a moment and coordinate ourselves: we have a problem of public order and as such it must be managed, as well as the fact of playing or not.”

Meanwhile, Koulibaly put out a social media post that read:

“I am sorry for the defeat and above all to have left my colleagues. However, I am proud of the colour of my skin. Of being French, Senegalese, Neapolitan: A Man.”

Many other Serie A footballers posted messages of support on their profiles, yet – somewhat predictably – the next round of fixtures went ahead as planned. Inter were given a two-match stadium ban, with an additional one-game ban for supporters in the Curva Nord where the majority of the chanting was heard, a standard punishment for these kinds of incidents in Italian football.

The response on the peninsula was frankly ridiculous, with those in power in the kind of denial that would be comical if it were not such a serious issue. “Racism is the stuff of idiots in 2018, but let’s not put everything in the same pot,” declared Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy Prime Minister and member of the right-wing Lega Nord party.

“In the stadiums they also sing ‘Milan in flames’, would that be racism too? [Leonardo] Bonucci was booed by the Milan fans, is that racism? Healthy teasing among fans is not to be considered racism.”

To hint that this was “healthy teasing” is an insult to Koulibaly, a man who has conducted himself with dignity throughout the ugly incident. Sadly, this is just the latest in a long line of such events played out in a number of stadiums by a minority of ignorant and uneducated people. The fact that nothing is done about it by those only serves to perpetuate it, and brings a slur on all Italians, the majority of whom are as outraged by racism as any other decent human beings.

The issue was best summed up by the intelligent and articulate former France defender Lilian Thuram, a man who played in Italy for both Parma and Juventus between 1996 and 2006.

“When I played in Italy these things were already happening,” the 46-year-old old Corriere dello Sport on New Year’s Eve. “After 12 years, unfortunately, it seems the situation hasn’t changed. Do you know what that means? That not enough has been done and racism isn’t a priority for you.

“If they were taking it seriously they’d do anything to stop it happening again, but instead a lot of people don’t care about the monkey chants and and other equally unpleasant chants in the stadiums. It’ll be because I’m a black person - or dark brown, if you prefer - but I’m tired of these debates.

“When incidents like this happen, I would close all Serie A stadiums for a weekend. Not just Inter’s. If Italian sports fans had to spend Saturday and Sunday without any games they’d be obliged to reflect, to understand how unjust it is to attack a person on the pitch just for the colour of his skin.”

As we move into 2019, it seems crazy that we are still having these debates, but here we are. There are many wonderful things about the Italian game, but unless the racism is stamped out there is a danger that the bad will outweigh the good. It is therefore up to everyone involved to put pressure on the powers that be to make a genuine change, and this must start right now.

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