Italian soccer’s racism problem might be worse than anyone thought, at least if its spectacularly tone-deaf new anti-racist campaign — featuring chimpanzees — is anything to go by.
Football clubs, former players, and anti-racist groups have been left stunned by the latest campaign by Serie A, Italy’s top professional football league, amid a season blighted by the ugly practice of fans directing monkey chants at black players.
Serie A’s response? An anti-racism campaign based around images of chimpanzees.
The choice of artwork for the campaign, in a country where black football stars have often been subjected to racist monkey chants, or had bananas thrown at them on the pitch, has left observers incredulous.
“Once again Italian football leaves the world speechless,” said anti-racism group Football Against Racism in Europe.
“In a country in which the authorities fail to deal with racism week after week, Serie A have launched a campaign that looks like a sick joke.”
The group said it was hard to imagine what league bosses were thinking when they commissioned the campaign, or who they could have consulted.
“These creations are an outrage, they will be counter-productive and continue the dehumanization of people of African heritage,” the group said.
Leading Italian clubs AC Milan and AS Roma also spoke out about the campaign. “We understand the league wants to tackle racism but we don’t believe this is the right way to do it,” said AS Roma, while AC Milan said it was “surprised by the total lack of consultation” behind the campaign.
Stan Collymore, a former English player who now works as a pundit, also weighed in, assuring followers on Twitter that the campaign images were “really real.”
“Maybe get the mascots to Black up as a finishing touch,” he joked.
Launching the campaign Monday, the artist behind the images, Simone Fugazzotto, said the idea for the campaign had come from racist abuse directed at Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly during a match at Inter Milan.
“I got so angry that... I got an idea. Why not stop censoring the word ‘monkey’ in football but turn the concept around and say instead that in the end we’re all apes?” said Fugazzotto, whose artwork frequently depicts chimpanzees.
“So I made the Western monkey, white with blue eyes; the Asian monkey, with almond eyes; and the black monkey in the middle, which is where everything comes from,” he told reporters.
Despite the artist’s intentions, the campaign is hardly likely to be an effective step in tackling what observers say is an endemic problem with racism in the Italian game, where fans, pundits, administrators and media have been regularly accused of racist treatment of black players.
Last month, all 20 Serie A clubs signed an open letter pledging to tackle Italian football’s “serious problem” with racism, following a string of cases involving the racist abuse of black players on the pitch, including Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku, Brescia’s Mario Balotelli, and Koulibaly.
The problem goes beyond the fans. Earlier this month, Italian sports newspaper Corriere dello Sport was slammed for running the headline “Black Friday” alongside a picture of Lukaku and another black player, AS Roma’s Chris Smalling, to preview an upcoming match.
Both players criticized the coverage, with Lukaku calling it one of the “dumbest” headlines he had ever seen, while others said it was typical of the racial insensitivity in Italian football.
“Tone deaf, ignorant and with the usual racial undertones. Saying I'm shocked would be a lie at this point,” football journalist Matteo Bonetti tweeted.
Meanwhile in September, Italian TV station TopCalcio24 sacked pundit Luciano Passirani after he said of Lukaku: “The only way to come up against him is maybe give him 10 bananas to eat.”
Even Italian football administrators have made similar comments. Five years ago, Carlo Tavecchio, criticised the number of foreigners playing for Italian clubs, complaining that players who “previously ate bananas” were suddenly becoming first-team players. Despite his remarks, he was subsequently elected president of the Italian Football Association.
Nor is the problem limited to football. After Cécile Kyenge became Italy’s first black government minister in 2013, she was subjected to shocking abuse from far-right politicians, including being repeatedly compared to an orangutan. And last year, black Italians reported a surge of racism unleashed by the relentless anti-immigration campaign of then-Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini.
When Serie A launched the campaign Monday, the league said it planned to put Fugazzotto’s paintings on permanent display at the entrance to its headquarters in Milan.
But amid the fierce blowback to the campaign, anti-racist groups are calling for the images to be pulled immediately, much less enshrined in a permanent exhibition.
“Serie A's use of monkeys in their anti-racism campaign is completely inappropriate, undermines any positive intent and will be counter-productive,” said Kick It Out, a British group which campaigns against racism in football.
“We hope that the league reviews and replaces their campaign graphics.”
Cover: Twitter/AS Roma English