Serie A and Racism: The Links to 1833

Inter Milan’s new striker, Romelu Lukaku was subject to racist abuse in matchday two of the Serie A season earlier this month. Whilst preparing to take a penalty, the Belgian was subject to monkey chants from Cagliari supporters.

Following the match, Lukaku took to Twitter in an attempt to urge the Italian football authorities to do more to prevent this kind of racist abuse from happening in Italy.

It seems like Lukaku’s plea fell upon deaf ears. Inter Milan’s ultra group, Curva Nord replied to the striker in an open letter.

“We are really sorry you thought what happened in Cagliari was racist,” they wrote. “You have to understand that Italy is not like many other north European countries where racism is a real problem. We understand that it could have seemed racist to you but it is not like that. In Italy we use some ‘ways’ only to ‘help our teams’ and try to make our opponents nervous, not for racism but to mess them up… Please consider this attitude of Italian fans as a form of respect for the fact that they are afraid of you for the goals you might score against their teams and not because they hate or they are racist.”

The letter, which is a pathetic attempt to cover for the inexplicable racism that Lukaku suffered, displays the gross backwardness of Italian thought in the patronising way they downplay monkey chants for a form of mild sledging.

Sadly, their views on racism are not surprising, considering they are within Italian football. This is not a one-off case, but something which is intrinsic throughout football in Italy. Serie A’s disciplinary judge appeared to side more with the Curva Nord, as he claimed that he needed more evidence before deciding if Cagliari should be punished for the chants.

The league’s judge, Gerardo Mastrandrea failed to even write the word “racist” in his weekly report after the match, merely referring to “chants”.

This has been an issue that the league have dodged in recent seasons too. Moise Kean was subject to racist chants against Cagliari earlier this year, Blaise Matuidi also in 2018, and Sulley Muntari in 2017. Serie A did not sanction Cagliari for any of these incidents. It appears that Italian football will not change its barbaric stance on racism anytime soon.

Granted, a number of clubs in Serie A have introduced cameras, which enable facial recognition, such as: Juventus, Sassuolo and Udinese. This kind of technology makes it easier to identify and take action against those chanting racist abuse.

Furthermore, Serie A “strongly condemns” the racial abuse suffered by Lukaku and has announced plans for an anti-discrimination plan, which is to be put into action next month.

Still, these are just small measures, which will not solve the huge problem that Serie A has with racism.

Perhaps an answer in how the situation will unfold can be traced to 1833, when issues over race were prevalent. This is the year that Britain abolished slavery, after signing the Slavery Abolition Act. In the centuries following this act, it has been praised for recognising, at last, the horrific conditions of the slave trade, and bringing an end to it, due to the humanitarian issues.

Propaganda for the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act

However, a closer look at the history tells a different story.  

With the industrial revolution in the 18th century, Britain no longer needed slave-based goods. The country was now benefiting from new systems of free labour and free trade. Adam Smith’s book, ‘Wealth of Nations’ contributed to the anti-slavery cause, by likening slavery to a monopoly which was unsustainable in a free market economy. Now, in the age of capitalism, slave labour, with no incentives, was seen as inefficient.

At the start of the 19th century slavery for Britain was becoming much less profitable. Historian, Eric Williams, has argued that the abolition of slavery came about because the system of slavery no longer had the significance it once possessed for Britain, economically. From 1821-1832, British exports to its West Indian colonies declined by 25%.

This strongly suggests that the abolition of slavery in Britain was at the very least, catalysed by economic issues.

This is significant for the current state of Italian football, because similar economic reasons could finally persuade the Serie A to take a tougher stance on racism.

Even if the people in power in Italian football, have no interest in combatting racism because of the negative effect it has on the black players who play in Serie A, they may take more interest in the issue, if the brand of Serie A begins to decline.

As racism only seems to be getting worse in Italy, eventually brands will pull out of their sponsorship in the league, resulting in financial losses for football in Italy. This way, the Italian football authorities will finally begin to properly adjudicate race issues in Serie A.

Several of Inter Milan’s celebrity fans have recently come out to distance themselves from the stance of Curva Nord. Enrico Mentana, Enrico Bertolino and Cianfelic Facchetti have all condemned the ultra’s letter this week.

It may not be too soon, until sponsorships and mainstream media begin to distance themselves away from the Serie A.

Another way that the Serie A may suffer financially from the racism in their football, will be through the decline in black players joining clubs in Italy.

This week, former Demba Ba stated why he never played in Italy. “And here’s the reason why I decided not to play there when I could,” he said. “And at that point I wish all the black players would get out of this league!”

19 of the 55 FIFPro best player’s list are either black, African, or mixed-raced. One of them, Kalidou Koulibaly has even suffered racist abuse himself, at the hands of Inter’s fans.

If such abhorrent abuse continues, it will not be long until more black players are put off playing in Serie A. With many of the best players in the world being either black, or having African descent, this would harm both the quality of Serie A football, and also lead to a decline in revenue for the league.

Although, it may not be the right way to deal with racism, the Italian football authorities may have their hands forced soon by the financial ramifications that the ugliness of racism has on the brand of Serie A. The very fact, that this situation is even comparable to a situation in 1833, displays the backwardness of Italian society and Italian football today. Something must change soon.

The faulty “alarm bells” in Graeme Souness’ head

When Graeme Souness left his native Edinburgh to join Tottenham Hotspur in 1970, much was expected of the young Scottish midfielder, not least from he himself. He repeatedly told the much-loved Tottenham manager Bill Nicholson that he was the best player at the club, and that he deserved to start every week. Nicholson clearly had different ideas. Souness would go on to only make one appearance for Spurs, as a substitute in a UEFA Cup tie. He was quickly moved on to Middlesbrough in 1972.

In his 1984 book, ‘No Half Measures’, Souness elaborated on why his Spurs career failed to live up to the expectations. “I owe that North London club more than one excuse for the way I behaved while I was with them,” he said, “I was still impatient, and I still couldn’t be told… As usual, my attitude was the problem and I didn’t try hard enough to put matters right.”

A striking contrast between Souness’ situation and that of Everton’s new Italian striker emerged before The Toffees game against Wolves recently. It seems as if Souness is a specialist at highlighting a player’s attitude, even if it’s his own. The Scotsman, whilst working for Sky Sports claimed that Kean’s move from Juventus to Everton has set ‘alarm bells off’ in his head.

Souness talking about Moise Kean (1/09/2019)

Souness continued: “Juventus are the wealthiest club in Italy, given that they’ve got an older strike-force you’re selling a 19 year-old who won’t be hurting you wage wise. They haven’t got £100 million plus for him.”

His flowing criticism was briefly abrupted as he quizzed Jose Mourinho on whether Juventus have a buy-back clause on Kean: “Do you know if they’ve got a buy-back clause, Juve?”

His knowledge, or lack of surrounding the details of the transfer, suggests that Souness is not in the greatest position to make such a scathing attack on Kean.

“It doesn’t make any common sense if you are Juventus,” argued Souness, “which would suggest his off the field activities are not the best.”

Souness wrapped up his point by comparing Kean to the once wantaway Arsenal striker, Emmanuel Adebayor: “Just about to enter his best years, Wenger sold him to City,” he said, “they’re not selling him because he’s not a very good footballer, it’s because of something not quite right with him.”

Souness has played for Sampdoria in Italy, whilst he has also managed Juventus’ neighbours, Torino. Furthermore, his own attitude problems, previously alluded to, may provide him an insight into a teenage footballer’s mindset. This suggests that the Scotsman is well informed on football matters, and specifically Italian football matters to make a sound judgement on this issue.

That is not the case. Despite Souness’ pool of footballing experience whether that be as a manager or a player, in England or in Europe, his opinion on Kean is both wrong and dangerous.

First off, Souness’ argument is littered by vague phrases, allowing him firstly, to make his point by not actually researching what he is about to say first, and also so he cannot objectively be proved incorrect. ‘Off the field activities’ is indicative of this unsubstantial argument.

Souness’ first point that “Juventus are the wealthiest club in Italy” is most likely true. This summer they have signed Matthis de Ligt for close to £80 million. They’ve also signed a few Serie A defenders for upwards of £20 million: Crisitian Romero, Luca Pellegrini and Merih Demiral. Add to this the free signings of Aaron Ramsey, Gianluigi Buffon and Adrien Rabiot and it seems that Juventus are flexing their financial muscles once more.

However, Juventus are facing an uphill task with Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, following their colossal signing of Cristiano Ronaldo last summer. As a result they have needed to balance the books somewhat. Kean was one of 10 Juventus players that was sold for £5 million or more. Most notably, their star right-back, Joao Cancelo was sold to Manchester City. So Souness is correct that Juventus are wealthy, but it is not a simple ‘black and white’ case.

It was also evident this summer that the club tried to offload Paolo Dybala to both Spurs and Manchester United. Whilst Gonzalo Higuain was defiant in his wish to stay in Turin, despite Juventus’ wish for him to depart to Roma. Thus, this is not an issue over Moise Kean’s attitude, but Juventus’ desire to sell players that they do not view as integral to their plans.

Souness was perplexed as to why Juventus could not command a fee of at least “100 million” for Kean. Again, a little research into the situation and Souness’ worries would be cascaded. Kean only had one year left on his contract. His agent, Mino Raiola is also known to favour his players running down their contracts, so he can command a greater fee. This was seen in the case of Paul Pogba, who shares the same agent. So Juventus were either forced to sell now, or keep Kean for one more season, and lose him for nothing. For a club pressured by FFP, the latter option was clearly not viable.

His apparent guess that Juventus do not have a buyback clause on Kean is correct. There is no buyback clause, but the clubs share a good relationship, and the deal reportedly includes a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ which will allow Juventus to match any future offer for Kean.

Moreover, Souness failed to consider the situation from Moise Kean’s perspective. He wants to be a starter for a big European club, at Juventus he was not that- only making 13 Serie A appearances last season. It was rumoured that Arsenal were interested in Kean, but he rejected their advances as they too could not offer him first team football, with Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette already at the club.

Kean has featured in every Everton game so far this season, and he started his first Premier League game against Wolves at the start of September. His decision to move to Merseyside clearly seems to be highly charged by a guarantee of football.

Surely this is something that should be applauded, not looked down upon. A young prodigy who has chosen to move from the comfort of a European giant, to a new country, all to gain more footballing experience, and to work his way up the footballing ladder. Yet this is something that Souness has chosen to lambast.

More importantly, Souness did not touch upon the abhorrent racist abuse that Kean was subject to, whilst playing in Serie A. In an away game against the infamous Italian club Cagilari, Kean, who had only just turned 19, was subject to monkey chants from sections of the home crowd throughout the match. Kean went on to score before holding out his hands in a passive celebration in front of the Cagilari supporters. Following the match, his team-mate, Leonardo Bonucci made the spectacular claim that Kean provoked the fans, and the blame was “50-50”. It would not be surprising if Kean felt that he was not welcome.

Perhaps, Souness should have touched upon this fact, and how, although racism is still present in English football, it is a galaxy away from the situation in Italy. Just take the example from the Inter match on the same day that Souness made these comments. Former Man United striker, Romelu Lukaku was also subject to racist chants, once again, by Cagilari supporters.

Thus, it is a much more delicate and serious situation than just the players “off the field activities”. Souness, whether deliberate or not, ignored this.

His comparison of Kean to Adebayor is arguably the most puzzling aspect of his entire argument. The two players are separated by six years from the time they departed their respective clubs. And Arsene Wenger actually wanted to keep Adebayor at Arsenal. Once more, there are holes in Souness’ argument.

To rub salt in the wounds, the Scot failed to discuss the transfer of Patrick Cutrone to Wolves. The situation has many parallels with that of Moise Kean’s transfer. Cutrone is also from Serie A, he also moved for a modest fee (£16 million), he is Italian, and he is young- only 21.

Similarly, he had no qualms about the attitude of Spurs’ Christian Eriksen, despite the Dane desperately seeking a move away from North London all summer.

“I don’t know him at all, I’m assuming he’s not been a problem around the place. I’d play him.”

He does not know Kean at all either.

Does Souness’ criticism of Kean have deeper racial undertones then? It would be wrong to accuse him of this. But his views should still be criticised, for implanting an idea into the vast audience that he has, that Moise Kean, a black footballer, has ‘attitude problems’ off of no basis.

Instead, Kean’s move to Everton should be celebrated. Firstly, the Premier League is getting a classy young striker, who will only improve. His courage to make the move from Italy to England and just 19, due to his desire to play first-team football should be commended, not criticised. The only “alarm bells” that should be ringing should be inside the heads of Premier League defenders, as they gear up to face Moise Kean this season.