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Boxing Day disaster in Serie A: Thoughts on Italy’s ongoing racism issue

In a day that was supposed to be a showcase of the league, one of Serie A’s most entrenched problems made another appearance.

FC Internazionale v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Boxing Day is celebrated on Dec. 26 mostly in the United Kingdom, but also other countries that were part of their commonwealth at one point or another, with Australia and Canada being the most famous ones in which it’s still an important holiday.

Despite what you might think, the holiday has nothing to do with the sport of boxing — which was something I had always thought. Apparently the name comes from the tradition in which tradesmen collected their Christmas boxes or gifts in return for a reliable service throughout the year. Less interesting than the boxing I had in mind in my opinion, nevertheless, now it’s mostly just a holiday related to shopping, similar to Black Friday in the United States.

Oh, and football. Football is a big deal in Boxing Day.

Football being played on Boxing Day has a long tradition in the UK, with the first documented match to be played on the holiday back in the 1888-89 season. However, it started to gain real traction back in the 50’s and is a full blown thing in the Premier League now, with attractive matchups all around the league and sold out stadiums.

I tell you all of this for two reasons.

  1. Because as always, learning is fun!
  2. Because 2018 was the first time that Serie A had a full slate of games on Boxing Day.

Does it matter that the holiday and tradition have no real history in Italy? Of course not, with Serie A trying to modernize itself and to trying to gather as many eyeballs as possible any excuse was a good excuse. Things seemed to be going according to plan, with Juventus playing a thrilling match against Atalanta in which Cristiano Ronaldo — Juve and Serie A’s shining new star — playing the part of the hero, Roma beating a feisty Sassuolo and a top 4 clash between Inter and Napoli looming as the featured match.

By now, I’m sure everyone has heard of the incident between Inter supporters and Napoli’s center back Kalidou Koulibaly. According to reports, the Senegalese defender was harassed with racist remarks all game long. Napoli manager Carlo Ancelotti declared to the press that he demanded several times for play to be stopped; the stadium PA asked fans several times to stop, however in a turn of events that shocked no one, they didn’t and the ref waved the game on. The situation escalated so much that Ancelotti has threatened to walk out of a game if a situation like that were to unfold again even if it would cause them to forfeit, he called the whole thing “bad for Italian football”

The incident became such a scandal that the death of one fan and four others that were stabbed in the same game, a huge tragedy in its own right, somehow became a bit of an afterthought.

In a day in which Serie A was looking to showcase the league, their players and their teams, they ended up showcasing their ugliest and most uncomfortable side as well.

Racism against black footballers is not something new in Italy. Hell, it’s not something new in football — Spain, England, France, you name it, we have seen this happen over and over again and this is far from an isolated incident despite what some people will lead you to believe. This is also not a case of people being over sensitive, misinterpreting a comment or taking a good sentiment and turning it into a pretty bad visual. This was a large amount of fans making monkey noises and acting like monkeys at a black player, there is no middle ground or blurred lines here, that’s as racist as racism gets.

Not that long ago when Juve’s wunderkind Moise Kean was loaned out to Hellas Verona, I remember the topic being discussed in this very blog, with the majority of commenters being relatively upset by the loan move. Was it because people thought that Kean could get minutes at Juve? Or because Hellas Verona was not a team that had a good scheme for a guy like Kean? Maybe he wouldn’t get as many minutes? Was there an entrenched veteran starter?

None of the above. The move wasn’t liked because of Hellas Veronas well know racist antics, a problem that everyone knew but very few people had done anything about. People didn’t like that the young starlet was moving to a new club because the assumption was that the color of his skin would be a problem in his new digs. Juve went through with the loan move anyways.

Koulibaly is not the first one to suffer from racist attacks in Italy. Sulley Muntari, Mario Balotelli, Kevin-Prince Boateng, are only a few of the other players that have been harassed in the last few years. I doubt Koulibaly will be the last one neither.

It was heartening to see fellow players and several fans rally around Koulibaly and Serie A had a quick response, an improvement on their usual strategy of not doing anything. Two home games with an empty stadium and a third with a portion of the fans banned, which will most likely do nothing. When a problem becomes this systemic and ingrained, minor punishments are a face saving measure, not something that will truly combat the root problem.

”When we look at the politics in Italy right now, this scaremongering of refugees and migrants; the rise of the far-right parties in Italy and across Europe; Interior Minister Matteo Salvini introducing regulations against migrants and ethnic minorities in the country - this has an impact on the stadiums,” declared Pavel Klymenko, member of the anti-discrimination body Football Against Racism in Europe. “With this type of political background, we will see more of these incidents in the coming year.”

Racism exists and it will not stop existing because some bans were thrown out. Idiots exist as well and they are not going anywhere any time soon. So, unfortunately, in a truly undesirable intersection of the worst type of Venn diagram, racist idiots are something we are just going to have to deal with.

As a Mexican who has lived for periods of time in Europe and the United States, I’m no stranger to racist remarks. They didn’t happen often, probably something to do with the fact I speak fluent, accent less English and am really fair skinned. And the experiences did not overshadow what were largely pleasant stays. But when they did happen, it surprised me that I was mostly unaffected. Turned out, I could handle getting called a “beaner” or getting mocked with comments about the wall, because it allowed me to know that it was a person that straight up was never going to like me just because of where I’m from and if we are being honest, I was probably not going to like them either.

What ended up getting to me, what ended up truly bothering me to the core was not the upfront racists, the type of people that will tell you to your face that they don’t like you because of where you are from. It was the people on the sidelines; the people who saw the things that were happening and did nothing. Not only nothing, but immediately jumped to the defense of the other person.

“He was drunk.”

“She didn’t mean it like that.”

“He’s actually a good person, it’s just the way things are around here, don’t take it personal.”

The answer to the problem is not in trying to change the minds of racists, ban them from the stadium, sweep it under the rug and move on. It is not to try to see it “from their point of view” there is no gray areas, or good people on both sides. To say that racism is wrong and racists are wrong should not be a controversial statement, yet, you’d be surprised how many people act as it is. In your humble correspondent’s opinion the only way we can deal with it is not to pussyfoot around the issue, acknowledge when something is wrong and do something about it.

Because truth be told, the most upsetting thing wasn’t to see a few idiots make racist monkey noises at Koulibaly. It was upsetting to know that those idiots felt comfortable and emboldened enough in their environment to know, that they could do it and get away with it. It was upsetting to know that they actually did get away with it.

At the end of the day, the most upsetting thing was to see all those other people witness what was happening and see them do nothing.