Racism in Italian Soccer: Balotelli, Lukaku and Radical Ultras

One of European soccer’s brightest talents and enigmatic figures, Mario Balotelli, had an eventful Saturday. The striker — now playing for Brescia after stints at Manchester City, both Inter and A.C. Milan, Liverpool and Nice — was dribbling toward his opponents’ end line, when he perceived that the Hellas Verona fan sections were chanting racial abuse at him. He scooped the ball up with his hands, in the middle of live play, and punted the ball into the stands. He then marched for the exit.

It’s not the first time Balotelli has faced abuse from fans and players on the pitch — after a match against Roma in 2013, the former Italian national team forward claimed “if it [racial abuse] happens one more time, I’m going to leave the pitch, because it’s so stupid.” His teammates, in desperate need of the phenom’s help on the pitch, convinced him to stay on. Bresica, was of course, down 2-0.

This is part of a larger racial context surrounding football in Italy. Just two weeks ago, Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku faced Caliari fans who made monkey noises every time he touched the ball. This was four days after an Italian TV pundit on the popular sports show, Qui Studio a Voi Stadio, claimed the only way to stop the Belgian forward of Congolese descent “is maybe give him 10 bananas to eat.”

Lukaku said in response in a press conference that “football is a game to be enjoyed, and we shouldn’t accept any form of discrimination that will put our game in shame.”

Football, however, in a nation enthralled by the sport, cannot only be a game “to be enjoyed.” Politics goes hand and hand with the sport.

The site of intersection between a club and its supporters are ultras groups that organize fans not only to cheer in unison but also mobilize supporters politically. The leader of the Hellas Veronas Ultras, Luca Castellini, ran for mayor of the city in 2012 and is a member of Forza Nuova, a far-right coalition in the region vehemently opposed to immigration and diversity in Italy.

Castellini claimed in a radio interview in Verona on Monday morning that monkey chants occurred and that those chants were totally permissible. He also claims Balotelli, who was born in Palermo, will never be “fully Italian” because of his race and referred to Balotelli with the most pejorative term in Italian to describe persons of African descent. Castellini was barred from entering the stadium by the team’s owners later that day, but it seems this might be easy to circumvent, as no identification is required at the gates and he still runs the Hellas Veronas Ultras.

Fans of football do not only spread far-right politics, however. The Scottish side Celtic’s supporters brandished flags with Mussolini hanging from a noose last week, along with Palestinian flags against Lazio, a favorite club of Mussolini. Celtic was fined, but their ultras started a donation drive to match the fines to support aid to persecuted Palestinians. Far-right politics and Serie A sides seem to go hand in hand, except for Sampadoria’s anti-fascist “Rude Boys.”

As Euroscepticism and far-right movements continue to gain traction in Europe, and Italy in particular, the tensions between the sterile, politics-averse governing bodies interested in maintaining profits and supporters groups, who might form an integral part of the “character” of these clubs, will only rise. AS Roma, on early Tuesday morning, issued a statement in solidarity with Balotteli’s plight but did not release a statement about the 30,000 euro fine the club received for racist chants from their own ultras.

Although Roma has an international following and imense revenues, the club was founded by Mussolini himself and has several far-right ultras groups. In the meantime, players like Balotelli and Lukaku are forced to endure attacks on their personhood and expected to continue to perform at a high level despite the abuse. Balotelli, for one, scored a beautiful last-minute goal right in front of the Hellas ultras section and jeered at them afterwards.

Sports, regardless of context, are never an apolitical story, as they are always tethered to the aspirations of cities, nations and peoples, even as money becomes the driving factor across the globe.