Rome, Italy — Colin Kaepernick jerseys aren’t showing up in Italy’s soccer stadiums. Maybe they should. I know some people who would surely wear them. How about:
Kalidou Koulibaly, the defender for Napoli and Senegal’s national team whom Lazio fans booed every time he touched the ball at Rome’s Olympic Stadium. Or …
David Guetta, the Jewish soccer commentator from Florence who, while waiting for a train outside Tottenham Hotspurs’ White Hart Lane stadium in London, had 20 Italian fans yell at him, “Guetta, a train to Mauthausen is waiting for you.” Mauthausen was a Jewish concentration camp in Austria.
Hey, Kaepernick could even peddle his jerseys to the Italian youth leagues. In the Tuscany seaside town of Forte dei Marmi, five black players for A.C. Milan’s developmental team walked off the field in tears after hearing racist taunts. They were 11.
Racism in Italian soccer is as rampant as immigration. From 2000-2014, according to the International Business Times, Italy’s pro leagues recorded 750 racist incidents. These aren’t just uneducated, right-wing fascists making headlines. Carlo Tavecchio, the president of FIGC, the governing body of Italian pro soccer, said last year during his campaign that African players get jobs too easily with Italian teams. Making up a blatantly racist African name, he said,
“Here we get Opti Poba, who previously ate bananas and then suddenly becomes a first-team player … In England, he must demonstrate his curriculum and his pedigree.”
Arrigo Sacchi, who led Italy to the 1994 World Cup final in the U.S.,
said after watching Italian youth teams in the prestigious Viareggio Cup international tournament, “I’m not racist, I had (black Dutch player Frank) Rijkaard (at A.C. Milan), but to see so many colored players, to see so many foreigners, is an insult to Italian soccer.”
In the Lazio-Napoli match, the referee smartly stopped the game for a few minutes until the crowd stopped booing Koulibaly. After the game, then- Lazio manager Stefano Pioli was appalled — but not by the booing. “If I had been the referee I would not have stopped it. We also have players of color and they are treated well.”
Imagine fans in Detroit throwing bananas at Lebron James. Imagine NFL commissioner Roger Goodell saying there are too many black players in the league. Imagine a baseball player celebrating a home run with a Sieg Heil salute, similar to what Paolo Di Canio did when he played for Lazio. This is the same man who was recently fired from his TV analyst job for sporting a fascist Dux tattoo in honor of Benito Mussolini.
Soccer combats this with the societal equivalent of a yellow card. In other words, they give the Italian hand gesture of a backhand upward motion under their chin, meaning “So what?” Atalanta was fined 40,000 euros for the banana incident. Lazio was fined only 38,000 euros for racist chants at White Hart Lane. FIGC cleared Tavecchio of racism. FIFA, the world governing body, banned him for only six months. FIGC did nothing about the Boateng incident. UEFA, which governs European soccer, did nothing, saying it was outside its jurisdiction.
However, FIFA is distributing a lot of swell “Say No to Racism” T-shirts.
To be honest, racism in soccer nearly prevented me from retiring to Rome. It was the late spring of 2014 and I was at The Denver Post preparing for my move. Then I read about my beloved A.S. Roma’s game at Milan which had a wonderfully talented young player named Mario Balotelli. He is as Italian as any teammate on Italy’s national team. But he was born to Ghanian parents in Palermo, Sicily, moved to the Lombardy region of Northern Italy at 2 and at 3 was given up to a middle-class foster family. They raised him in the small Lombardy town of Concesio.
That day in Milan’s San Siro stadium, every time he touched the ball Roma’s large contingent of traveling fans started making monkey sounds.
I was shocked, embarrassed, angry and confused. Was I moving to a racist city? Was I supporting a racist club? This was something out of Major League Baseball in the 1950s, the Southeastern Conference in the ‘60s. Some American expats who’d lived in Rome for 15 years talked me off the ledge. They asked me if I ever saw any racism when I lived here the first time from 2001-03. No. Had I ever met a racist in Rome. No.
So here I am. I’ve lived here in this stint 2 ½ years and I’ve heard only one racist comment. An EX friend, an Italian-Australian who spent half his life in Australia, told me of Pres. Obama, “A black man shouldn’t be president of a white country.” A Kenyan woman fluent in Italian once told me when she showed up to look at an apartment the surprised landlady who talked to her on the phone told her the flat was suddenly sold.
That’s it. When I lived in the U.S., the most racist industrialized country in the world, I heard that many incidents every week, often, surprisingly, from successful businesswomen. In fact, a Nigerian friend has lived in Rome for the past nine years playing goalkeeper for various lower-division pro teams around Rome. He said in that time he has experienced racism only once: A car drove by him late at night in the nightclub area near my apartment and a group of youths yelled the “N” word at him. He loves Rome.
However, when the soccer stadiums open their gates, the dregs of Italian society crawl out from under their rocks and fill the cheap seats where racism finds comfort in company. Like Donald Trump shepherding American racists, Italian soccer shepherds Italian racists. They are reaching back to a time in the 1940s when fascism was an accepted national movement, when Mussolini rode its wave to the head of the government — and the eventual destruction of the country.
It’s no coincidence that racism is following the same growth chart as immigration. According to the National Institute of Statistics, as of January 2015 foreign residents made up 8.3 percent of the population. In 1981 it was .003 percent. The resentment has gone beyond the rational view of more job competition. The East Europeans aren’t facing near the racism as the Africans. Cecile Kyenge was Italy’s Minister for Integration and Italy’s first black cabinet minister. National politicians have compared her to an orangutan. Critics have thrown bananas at her.
Of course, this isn’t just an Italian problem. Last week A.S. Roma played a game in the Europa League (European club soccer’s equivalent of the NIT) at Viktoria Plzen in Plzen, the Czech town famous for inventing pilsner beer. Two sections of the stadium were closed off as punishment for racist chants during an August game against Ludogorets Razgrad, a Bulgarian team sporting eight players from Brazil.
Colin Kaepernick is my first favorite player in the NFL. What he has done is force America to discuss a problem that isn’t close to getting solved. That’s after 50 unarmed black men were shot to death by white cops from January 2015 to July this year and after a man walked into a gun shop, legally bought a gun and killed nine people in a church because of the color of the skin. If you don’t think there’s a problem with racism in America, then you’re part of the problem.
Kaepernick’s stance has nothing to do with the military. It has nothing to do with the election. It has nothing to do with the economy. Kaepernick has one single focus: racism.
It’s a focus that’s needed in Italy. I never hear it discussed. It’s not written much in Italy’s sports dailies. The players don’t give many interviews about it. But it hangs over soccer like warplanes cruising over stadiums waiting to drop another bomb.
Italian soccer needs more than T-shirts. It needs jerseys. I wear an XL.
(John Henderson has been a brilliant sports and travel writer for most of his adult life, although some would claim he never has become an adult. On Jan. 10, 2014, he retired after 23 years at The Denver Post and moved back to Rome where he lived from 2001-03 as a freelance travel writer. During his Rome stint he also wrote a light-hearted book about starting a new life in a new country — with a long-distance girlfriend — called “American Gladiator in Rome: Finding the Eternal Truth in the Infernal City.” Currently John writes a travel blog called Dog-Eared Passport (www.johnhendersontravel.com) that chronicles his life in Rome, and his travels around the world. In 2003, he was last seen in Rome kicking and screaming as The Denver Post dragged him back to the paper he first joined in 1990. In his second stint in Denver, however, he says he had some of the best 10 years of his career. He covered national college football, six Tours de France, swimming and soccer in the Summer Olympics and figure skating in the Winter Olympics. Don’t laugh. Figure skating got him to Russia three times. He also wrote a traveling food column called “”A Moveable Feast” based on John eating everything from caviar in Russia to fried insects in Cambodia. The insects are still preferable to the bacon cheeseburger at the Hooters in Tuscaloosa, Ala.) he covered the Colorado Buffaloes from 1990-95, the Denver Broncos from 1995-97, the Colorado Rockies in 1997 and Major League Baseball from 1998-2001. Henderson worked at the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 1980-90 and the mercifully defunct Fournier Newspapers in suburban Seattle from 1979-80. he is a proud 1978 graduate of the University of Oregon, which was just one mile from where he grew up in Eugene.)