You can’t delete racism. It’s like a cigarette. You can’t stop smoking if you don’t want to, and you can’t stop racism if people don’t want to.
Six years have passed since Mario Balotelli spoke those words in an interview with Sports Illustrated. He was on top of the world back then, Italy’s first-choice No 9 and fresh from a triumphant half-season at Milan. Signed from Manchester City during the January transfer window, he had scored 12 times in 13 games for the Rossoneri, carrying them to third place.
The magazine’s front cover depicted him walking on water. Yet even then, back when so much seemed possible for the striker whose goals had obliterated Germany at Euro 2012, Balotelli acknowledged his powerlessness to stop football supporters in his home country from abusing him for the colour of his skin.
Returning to Italy this summer, after stints away at Liverpool, Nice and Marseille, he wondered if things might have changed. “I hope with all my heart that there won’t be any repeat of the things that happened when I was last here,” he said after signing for Brescia. “I hope that Italy has taken some steps forward.”
He was destined to be disappointed. The opening weeks of the Serie A season have witnessed several high-profile instances of players being racially abused, from Romelu Lukaku at Cagliari to Dalbert at Atalanta and Ronaldo Vieira during a home game for Sampdoria against Roma.
On Sunday, Balotelli was the target for monkey chants during Brescia’s game away to Verona. In the 55th minute, he responded. Fighting to keep the ball in play down by the corner flag, Balotelli turned suddenly and lashed it up towards supporters in the Curva instead.
Chaos ensued. The referee, Maurizio Mariani, booked Balotelli for unsportsmanlike behaviour. Balotelli threatened to walk off the pitch. Players from both teams intervened, talking Balotelli down while also informing officials of the abuse he had received. Mariani waved off the yellow card and suspended the game, instructing the stadium announcer to warn fans that it would be abandoned altogether if the chants continued.
After a delay of almost five minutes, play resumed. Verona, already leading through a goal from Eddie Salcedo, extended their advantage through Matteo Pessina. Balotelli responded with a spectacular strike from the edge of the D, struck first time off his right instep into the top corner. It was not enough to rescue his team from a 2-1 defeat.
An ugly afternoon only got worse after the final whistle, when the Verona manager, Ivan Juric, flatly denied that any racist abuse had taken place. “I’m not afraid to say that nothing happened,” he insisted. “There was loud whistling and mockery, but no racist chant. There was nothing. I am a Croatian and I hear ‘gypsy piece of shit’ sometimes because unfortunately that is the tendency in Italy. But today there was nothing.”
What possessed him to take such a hard line, only he can know. In any case, he was wrong. Juric might not have heard the monkey chants himself, but several of his players did, and they were plainly audible on a fan-shot video that circulated on Sunday evening.
This has too often been the default mode for clubs whose fans stand accused of racist chanting: to mount an aggressive defence first – often calling into question the integrity of the victim – and ascertain the facts of what happened later. Verona’s president, Maurizio Setti, supported his manager’s line, claiming his team’s supporters were simply “sarcastic, not racist”.
Verona will likely be sanctioned. The independent observer sent to monitor this game heard the racist chants and included them in their official report – something that did not happen when Lukaku and Dalbert were abused, and which should allow the sporting justice greater scope for punishment.
Still, there are ambiguities that make the verdict hard to predict. According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, the observer only ascribed the monkey chants to a group of about 15 fans. Balotelli was booed and whistled by many more, but here we are into murky territory. What constitutes racist abuse rather than straightforward jeering of an opponent?
Regardless of the outcome, the discouraging thought is that once again nothing will change. This was a weekend when Roma’s game against Napoli was also suspended in response to territorial discrimination from the former club’s ultras. The initial warning from the stadium announcer had been roundly ignored. Only the intervention of Edin Dzeko, encouraging fans to drown out the chants with cheers, seemed to get things back on track.
Balotelli’s assessment that you cannot force people not to be racist rings as true as ever. On the other hand, Italian football cannot absolve itself of responsibility. Clubs in other countries do a far more effective job of identifying individuals who engage in racist chanting and keeping them out of the stands.
This is a slow process, and even with maximum commitment could not be achieved overnight. It is hard to see how it will ever happen at clubs whose first instinct is to accuse a victim of making it up.
• Defeat for Brescia meant the sack for Eugenio Corini – the manager who steered them to promotion. His team have taken one point from their past six games, but to me this still felt premature. This has been a gruelling run, including games against Juventus, Inter, Napoli and Fiorentina – none of whom beat them by more than a single goal.
• Roma leapt up to third by beating Napoli in a hugely entertaining game, and Paulo Fonseca really does seem to have his team moving on a positive trajectory despite a long injury list. Nicolò Zaniolo opened the scoring with a wonderful left-foot finish – marking his fourth straight game with a goal – and even Javier Pastore is playing well now that he’s back in his preferred home at No 10. Chris Smalling once again played his part, too, with an acrobatic clearance off the line.
• When is a handball not a handball? Don’t ask Matthijs De Ligt, who was not punished in the Turin derby when the ball struck his arm in almost identical pose to that in which it had done so when he gave away a penalty against Lecce. This time: no spot-kick – a contrast that only looked sharper after Juventus edged to a 1-0 victory over their city rivals, courtesy of a volley from the defender himself.
• Is it time to start viewing Cagliari as serious contenders for the Champions League? They won 2-0 away to Atalanta, drawing level on points with the Bergamo club and Lazio in fourth place. The Sardinians were aided by a first-half red card to Josip Ilicic but the 23-year-old Uruguayan Christian Oliva was magnificent in midfield. His only previous start came away to Napoli, where Cagliari also won, 1-0.
• Two more goals for Romelu Lukaku, who rescued Inter after they fell behind at Bologna. He has nine in Serie A already, placing him second only to Ciro Immobile – who is already on 13 for Lazio.