By Christos Kassimeris
On April 18, 2009, Juventus hosted Inter Milan in what was a football match that determined, essentially, the league’s winning side. The match ended a draw and, therefore, Inter Milan maintained their healthy lead in Serie A, but the game attracted much attention for reasons not pertinent to football. Born in Italian city Palermo, Mario Balotelli was adopted at the age of three by an Italian family, yet his Italianess was brutally questioned when fans of Juventus sung ‘there is no black Italian’ during the decisive Serie A match. There is little doubt that Balotelli’s opening goal must have devastated the Juventus supporters, yet there is no good enough a reason for the kind of racist abuse that the striker of Ghanaian descent had to endure. The Italian media condemned the incident and so did Giovanni Coboli Gigli, president of Juventus, who criticized that section of fans that derided the talented player. Sadly, the prospect of playing their next home game behind closed doors clearly proved far more critical than the menace that is racial discrimination for Juventus appealed against the ban so as to preserve the club’s interests in the league. Justice was, ultimately, not served when the penalty imposed by the Italian football authorities was never overturned, but when Juventus was made to suffer further humiliation as the club’s decision to appeal invited criticism from the media for failing to acknowledge the gravity of the incident.
Showing no sympathy for the club he once played for, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) president Michel Platini condemned on April 21 the racist incident a few days later and stated that referees would be granted the necessary powers to stop football matches for ten minutes and even to suspend games should racist chanting persist. Along similar lines, Giancarlo Abete, president of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), emphasized that Italian referees already had the authority to suspend matches when banners inciting racism are displayed inside stadiums. Interestingly, the exact same day that Platini voiced his concerns about the future of the game the United Nations’ Conference Against Racism took place whereby a relevant declaration was issued that made particular reference to the game of football, thus calling Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to implement suitable measures so as to tackle racial discrimination with effect at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa—the country that gave rise to the apartheid regime.
Most certainly, racism in European football has reached unparalleled heights over the past few years and has nowadays become a serious enough matter to compel UEFA to consider conceding to referees sufficient powers for halting, suspending and even abandoning a game when fans engage in racist chanting, as decided on May 12 by Europe’s football governing body. The matter will dominate anew the agenda of UEFA’s forthcoming Executive Committee meeting in Vilnius on July; however, it is worthy to note that such measures will be limited, perhaps, to only those football matches held under the auspices of UEFA at both club and international level.
Christos Kassimeris is assistant professor in political science at European University Cyprus in Nicosia and author of European Football in Black and White: Tackling Racism in Football and and the editor of the forthcoming Anti-Racism in European Football: Fair Play for All.