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Italian Soccer is Full of Racism, Same as Everywhere Else

Recent racist comments by an Italian soccer legend illuminate the racism present throughout Italian society and the world as a whole.
February 20, 2015, 5:50pm

Italian soccer legend Arrigo Sacchi has revealed himself to be a racist. In trying to voice his displeasure at the state of Italian soccer, the former AC Milan and Italian national team manager said:

"I'm certainly not racist and my history as a coach demonstrates that … But look at the Viareggio [youth] tournament I would say that there are too many black players. Italy has no dignity, no pride. It should not be possible that our teams should have 15 foreign players in the squad."

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He went on to clarify his position by saying that he was just unhappy that a team in the youth tournament was fielding four "coloured" boys; defending himself by once again pointing to his managerial history as a shield against allegations of racism. But when someone starts off a statement with "I'm certainly not racist […] but…" you can assure yourself that something blatantly racist is to follow.

The comments were enough to shock FIFA President Sepp Blatter, a man who once said that victims of racist abuse should settle things with their abuser via the great nullifier of racism that is the handshake.

Arrigo Sacchi. Image via Elena Torre, WikiMedia Commons

Brass tacks: Sacchi is a racist and transparently dim in the way racists tend to be. More than Sacchi's own racism though is the fact that Italian soccer and Italian culture—like most any other—offers safe harbor to racism. It wasn't too long ago that Carlo Tavecchio, Italy's FA President, was banned for six months by UEFA over comments that African players were eating bananas and taking roster spots from Italian players. That's the most powerful man in Italian football who made that statement, a man who was elected. Coincidentally, one of the teams that showed their support after Tavecchio's comments was AC Milan, Sacchi's former team.

Speaking of AC Milan, three of the club's former players were recently victims of racist attacks by fans. Kevin Constant had bananas thrown at him by Atalanta fans, Kevin-Prince Boateng walked off 25 minutes into a match against lower league Pro Patria after being showered with monkey sounds—a commonplace taunt that he's tried to ignore during his time in Italy.

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And if anyone knows about the racism in Italy, it is Mario Balotelli. Balotelli had to deal with banana throwing, monkey noises, and racist taunts from fans of almost every team that AC Milan faced. Racism seems to be the only thing that can unite Roma and Lazio. He was even abused by Italian fans who have unfurled banners and invaded the national team's training sessions on numerous occasions to yell slurs at him and say that there's no such thing as a black Italian. The black Italian sentiment would fall directly in-line with Sacchi's beliefs: we're not racist, blacks are cool as long as they're not in our country. Well, until you realize that even the golden boy of Serie A, Paul Pogba, was demeaned and humiliated in the same manner.

Football, though, is just a reflection of the world around it. Italy is racist and xenophobic. This is not a hidden or shamed truth. The skeleton is not in the closet: it's being paraded around as a point of national pride. Roberto Calderoli, a former minister of Italy's anti-immigration Northern League party and a member of the Senate of Italy, is proof of this. The politician, who claims that he's been cursed now, said last year that Cécile Kyenge, Italy's first black minister, reminded him of an orangutan.

Calderoli is also a former minister for Silvio Berlusconi. That's AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi, former Prime Minister of Italy and the man who joked that Barack Obama had a sun tan. Also, still one of the most powerful men in Italy and Italian football. A man who backed Carlo Tavecchio after he made racist statements about African players. Moving on…

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Congo-born Cécile Kyenge was named Italy's minister of integration in April of 2014 in order to help the almost four million foreign residents in the country. That's about 7 percent of the total population. Since her appointment, she has been the victim of racist taunts and has had bananas thrown at her while she spoke on a podium. Bloodied mannequins have been left at places where she was to speak, and a local councilor even called for her to be raped. From deputy mayors to winemaker Fulvio Bressan, Italians have called her everything from a prostitute to a "dirty black monkey."

One of her crimes, besides the obvious sin of being of a darker skin color, is trying to reform Italy's strict citizenship laws. As it stands, children of immigrants have to wait until they are 18 years old to apply to become Italian citizens. And they have a one year deadline. The process is a bureaucratic nightmare of paperwork, questions, and interviews that can, and often does, go wrong for any number of minor and silly reasons. Kyenge wants to make citizenship easier for these children—who are born and raised in Italy—but many Italians are not having it.

Going further back, but not much further, Italy was the site of race riots in 2010. As written in TIME:

"The riots in Rosarno, which reportedly began after three Italian teenagers fired air rifles at two African immigrants, unsettled a nation that prides itself on its bella figura — the beautiful image. About 2,500 migrants live in the Rosarno valley in the southern Calabria region, moving with the seasonal agricultural jobs. Many have political asylum or are otherwise legally in Italy, but legal or not, the migrants are managed by a Mafia-run employment system, the caporalato, that operates like a 21st century chain gang. Saviano says that those who object to low wages or poor working conditions are simply eliminated — and not just by a pink slip. 'It's a military system,' Saviano tells TIME in Rome as one of the plainclothes cops guarding him stands nearby. 'The farm and factory owners employ the Mafia caporali to bring the workers. The immigrants wait on the roads, the caporali pick them up and take them to the work. If they complain, they get killed.'"

The immigrants live in tents and shacks inside abandoned buildings without appliances or basic healthcare; working long hours for just $3 per hour. It's indentured servitude and a blink away from slavery. The startling part of this is that without the basic necessities to make life comfortable as modern day slaves of the mafia, they are still treated better by their captors than society in Italy's major cities. "Africans say the Italian girls look them in the eyes in Calabria, while in the north they wouldn't."

Five years later, only one person was convicted in these attacks, and racism was excluded as one of the possible causes for it. One of the Italians who drove a bulldozer into a group of those immigrants was also acquitted of those charges. There was and is no justice for these African immigrants who continue to live like slaves under the mafia.

So Sacchi was wrong, Italy hasn't lost its identity or national pride. His racist beliefs are in line with Italian culture now and then. It's as racist and xenophobic as ever. You only need to look at how black people in the society are regarded. The most powerful men in Italian football are openly racist and have expressed their disregard for people of color in a joking manner time and time again. And once again, football is just a representation of what is allowed in the general society. In both Italy and everywhere else.