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Racism still rife in Italian football

With Italy hoping to be awarded the Euro 2016 tournament in a few months time, it says it is taking serious measures to crack down on racism in football.

But, as Emma Wallis reports from Rome, there is plenty of evidence the phenomenon is still rife on the terraces - and even on the pitch.

Mario Balotelli
Mario Balotelli has become a hate figure for some Italian fans

Mario Balotelli - or Super Mario, as he is known by fans of Inter Milan - knows that as well as anyone.

The black striker, who is an Italian citizen, has become a target of racist abuse wherever he plays.

Juventus fans taunted him so viciously the club was fined and forced to play a match behind closed doors.

"Racist hooligans have a problem with themselves and with society, it's not Mario's problem," says Cristina Balotelli, the 19-year-old striker's older sister.

"How would you feel if you had to listen to racist comments?" she asks. "Anyone would be angry, and shocked.

"He [Mario] is disgusted, I believe. Those [racists] should be sent home."

Balotelli is determined to overcome the hostility. Born to Ghanaian parents but adopted by Italians, he has so far turned down appeals to play for Ghana and has set his sights on a place in the Italian team.

Ms Balotelli is not the only one to think that sometimes the football authorities in Italy do not do enough to enforce their zero-tolerance policy towards racism.

Daniela Conti, an anti-racist campaigner for UISP, Italy's sport-for-all organisation, explained that her organisation sends letters to all the clubs in Italy's top leagues regarding anti-racist projects.

Usually, they get no response. Only three big teams have active anti-racist campaigns, Ms Conti says: Sampdoria and Siena in Serie A, and Hellas Verona in Serie C1.

Reaching out

Ms Conti says it is not good enough for clubs simply to declare themselves anti-racist.

ASD Nuova Casteltodino during training
Casteltodino walked off the pitch when a black player was abused

Projects should come from the grass roots. The most devoted fans - known in Italy as Ultras - should be encouraged to paint their own anti-racist banners, she says.

Clubs should be reaching out to the community, she adds, going into schools and getting their players to talk about racism.

"It's about a two pronged attack, education and social action as well as fines and repression," says Ms Conti.

In January, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni called for referees to be given powers to stop matches if racism reared its ugly head.

The Italian football federation (FIGC) responded by saying that their referees already had a lot to do, and it should be up to police at the match to call it off if necessary.

Make a stand

Near the Umbrian town of Terni a few weeks ago, a small amateur team, ASD Nuova Casteltodino, made national headlines when the whole team walked off the pitch after one of their two players of Nigerian origin was called a "dirty Negro" by an opposition player.

Maurizio Venturi
Venturi says his two black players are '200% Italian'

Club Secretary Francesco Ribeca compared their struggle to the American civil rights movement.

"You might think that we don't count, but if you think of Rosa Parks in America and how that one gesture of sitting down on a bus sparked a whole civil rights movement, we felt we had to make a stand too," he said.

"Even if we manage to change just a few people's minds that will be a huge success for us. We threw away a football result to get a result for society."

Club President Maurizio Venturi said the insult was the fourth such incident this season. He sees the two brothers Narcisio and Emeka, who were born in Italy to Nigerian parents, as "200% Italian".

Unfortunately, many in Italy do not think the same.

Minefield

One of the favourite chants for racist fans is: "There are no black Italians".

Aloysius Chukwuemeka Egwu, known as Emeka
Emeka says it is difficult for black Italians to integrate fully

But this assertion is increasingly being proved wrong. In Italy, citizenship is still about having Italian blood, and is not dependent on where individuals were born.

For those born in Italy to non-Italian parents, there is a long and complicated bureaucratic process at the age of 18 to request Italian citizenship.

While Narcisio is Italian in the eyes of the law Emeka, at 25, is still waiting to gain his citizenship.

He shrugs off racism as something that happens, admitting that in Italy, black people are still "treated like outsiders and it's difficult to integrate fully".

"But you have to go on with life," he adds.

In a country where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi famously described US President Barack Obama as "tanned", it is perhaps not surprising that tackling racism is a minefield.

Writer Francesco Pacifico says the concept of racism is different in Italy. He says it is difficult to eradicate racist attitudes because "in Italy there is no notion of a few rotten apples... we're all rotten apples".

"Everything is so blurred and impossible to reform in a way, and authorities of all kinds know that. That left-wing spirit which just wants to do as if we were a northern European country is misled, because that is not the reality."

Casteltodino's Francesco Ribeca says that with the economic interests of top flight football, the "money factories" of Serie A would probably not be favourable to stopping matches every time a racist insult was hurled.

Seen in this light, perhaps it is easier to understand why it is so rare for teams like Casteltodino to stand up to be counted in Italy's anti-racist struggle.



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