Serie A: Ways Italian Clubs Could Actively Curb Racism

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2013

Serie A: Ways Italian Clubs Could Actively Curb Racism

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    Over the past season, Italian clubs have been the focus of some ugly incidents involving racism.  From AC Milan's walkout during a winter break friendly against fourth-tier side Pro Patria to separate incidents involving Lazio fans both home and away against Tottenham and a game in Slovenia, racism has been a hot topic in the Italian game.

    These recent incidents have caused many—including myself in two articles that can be read here and here—to opine on what is to be done to ensure that these racist actions no longer mar the game.

    Here are 10 suggestions that clubs and FIGC can act on to help curb the racism that is currently staining the fabric of Italian soccer.

Continue Curbing General Hooliganism

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    Incidents of racism are more significant than the usual hooliganism, but they're definitely extensions of the basic reality of hooliganism in soccer that has been a problem for years.

    The European soccer community has done excellent work reducing the problems surrounding hooligans over the last several decades, and the first step towards making sure that the number of racist incidents drops is to stay that course and keep rowdiness, violence and general misbehavior to a minimum.

    Ordinary hooligans acting up can embolden any fans looking to stir up more trouble into causing a scene.  Without such disturbances acting as cover, fans who will look to stir up racial trouble may have less incentive to risk getting caught doing something that will have consequences.

Increased In-Stadium Presence

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    The stands are where racist acts in Italian soccer are centered, and therefore stand as the place that need to be policed.

    Not all Italian stadia are effectively patrolled by safety and security personnel.  That's not all that surprising when you consider that not all the teams in Serie A can even secure a ground to play on that is safe for spectators (we're looking at you, Cagliari) or enforce their own rules against the use of flares.

    If clubs were to put more eyes and ears into the stands during games, it would give them more of a chance to identify and expel individuals or small groups of fans who might start larger-scale problems that could escalate to involve a whole section.

Encourage the Fans to Police Themselves

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    It is safe to say that the racists incidents are perpetrated by a definite minority of fans in the stadium.  The vast majority of spectators find it just as distasteful as the people who pillory Italian fans as a whole for these incidents.

    Getting more security personnel into the stands is just one way of nipping the problem in the bud in the stands.  The fans themselves can be instrumental in stamping out the misconduct of their peers.

    Fans must be encouraged to seek out stadium personnel if they think that fans around them are crossing the line.  But clubs shouldn't stop there.

    Italian clubs should take a page out of the books of several American franchises across several sports—especially the NFL—and provide direct access to stadium security through phone calls and text messages.  Such a connection would alert security personnel in real time and be able to direct them to the specific spot that a disturbance could be forming in order to take measures to deal with the perpetrators before it turns into a larger-scale incident.

Cooperate with Police

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    After AC Milan's walkout at Pro Patria, Busto Arsizio prosecutors vowed to open an investigation on charges of instigation to racial hatred.  It's imperative that clubs concentrate their efforts with police so that when people do commit racist acts in the stadium, they can be punished to the fullest extent of Italian law.

    If there is a legal deterrent that involves a fine or jail time, fans may take pause before they attempt to do something unseemly in the stands.

Distance Fan Groups from Politics

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    Italian ultra groups are traditionally connected to certain parts of the political spectrum.  The first two ultras groups founded by Juventus fans were traditionally left-leaning, and Milan's supporters have traditionally been unionists and the working class—although that has changed somewhat under the ownership of right-wing politician Silvio Berlusconi.  Conversely, fans of clubs like Inter and Lazio are traditionally considered to be right-leaning.

    Politics and sports have never been a particularly good combination.  If there's a worse one, though, it's the combination of politics and race.  Put the three together in one space and you come up with a veritable Hecate's brew of bad things waiting to happen.

    To the credit of many teams, especially ones like Lazio, the more extreme political elements in ultra groups—on both ends of the spectrum—have largely lost their ability to sway club policy.  But those elements are still on the fringes and will still be able to cause trouble down the line.

    Clubs should go further, however.  Any ultra group that claims any kind of political affiliation should not be seated at stadiums.  Doing this help to make sure that one of the more potentially volatile elements in this equation is pushed to the side.

Promote Diversity on the National Team

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    One does not just decide to be a racist one day—it's something that is learned from culture around you.  As Rogers and Hammerstein said so poignantly said in "South Pacific," "You've Got to be Carefully Taught."

    It's a good thing, then, that the Italian national team has taken on a bit more of a multicultural bent.  Faces like Angelo Ogbonna, Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy have been painting a different picture of the national team, and it's a good thing.

    Cesare Prandelli has called on a fair number of players who have had dual eligibility, with Amauri, Thiago Motta, Pablo Osvaldo and Cristian Ledesma joining the aforementioned three.

    This changing of faces is a good thing.  While members of the Northern League might rail at the use of oriundi in the Azzurri roster and call for FIGC to promote "homegrown talent," it's beneficial for two reasons.

    First, from a purely on-field perspective, players like Balotelli and El Shaarawy are the best at their position that Italy has.

    Second, it makes the national team a better reflection of Italian society as a whole. Immigrants from northern Africa and eastern Europe are being incorporated into Italian society, and if a symbol of the country as significant as the national team starts to reflect that diversity, subsequent generations will see it as the norm, and not something to be derided.

    That's not to say that the national team should be on some sort of Affirmative Action policy—if you're the best, you play.  But if the best are people that look a little different than they did in the past, it's important to show that that isn't a bad thing.

Heavier Fines

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    When Lazio was involved in a trio of high-profile incidents involving racist chants from fans in the group stage of this year's Europa League, UEFA's chosen weapon to punish the club was the fine.

    Lazio was fined €37,706 for the first offense at Tottenham, and then a combined €139,222 for the twin incidents against Tottenham at home and at Maribor.

    It's yet to be seen whether this latest fine will cow the club's fans into behaving.  But if the first fine wasn't enough to keep the fans in line, can you reasonably expect the second to?

    The fact of the matter is that while a fine may put the feet of club executives to the fire, it won't move the needle for most fans.  It's not their money that UEFA is taking.

    This is not to say that fines aren't an effective way to punish a team.  The fines that UEFA currently levies, however, are far too paltry to get the job done.  Any fine regarding a racist incident should be seven figures minimum, and repeat offenders should be hit with fines large enough that it starts to interfere with a team's transfer operations.

    It's one thing to make racist chants or gestures in the stands.  It's another to sit through a miserable season knowing your actions are responsible for your team's inability to bring in the players it needed to compete.

Point Penalties

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    Points in the standings are what they all play for.  We hear all the time about points dropped, points salvaged, points stolen.  It's the aim of the game in league and group play: get the most points possible.

    When you're stripped points due to disciplinary reasons, it's a huge deal.  Those points could be the difference between a lucrative spot in Europe or mid-table obscurity, between staying up and a relegation that will ruin both reputation and finances.

    For an idea of what these penalties mean to a team, look at the Serie A standings right now. Rock-bottom Siena started the season with a six-point deduction as a consequence of the calcioscommesse scandal.  Had Siena started the year without the loss of those six points, they'd be 18th and only a point behind Genoa for 17th and safety.

    On the other end of the table, the reversal of Napoli's two-point penalty for involvement in the match-fixing scandal makes the race for the scudetto much more interesting.  Juve would have gone into this week's fixtures up by seven points rather than five, and the bianconeri's loss to Roma would have been of much less consequence in the race for the Serie A.

    It's a measure that would make fans think twice before doing something that could deprive their team of valuable table places.

Empty Stadiums

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    When there's an imperfection in a board of wood or a piece of fruit, the easiest solution is to remove the blemish.  In this case, the problems are fans, so one of the easy solutions would be just that: remove the fans.

    Not permanently, of course.  It's called a spectator sport for a reason.  But in the case of repeated incidents of racism from fans, forcing a team to play a game or two behind closed doors would likely be an effective solution. 

    There is precedent for such action.  When Juventus fans at the Stadio Olimpico di Torino racially abused then-Inter man Mario Balotelli in 2009, FIGC immediately ordered the bianconeri to play their next home game behind closed doors.

    This might sound like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because, as said in previous slides, for the most part the perpetrators of these racist acts are a small minority of fans in the stadium.  However, in repeat offender cases it may be the best idea to have the toys taken away from the children.

    First, it will likely cause innocent fans to have less tolerance for the antics of their fellows, seeing as how it deprives them of being able to see their team as well.

    Second, it will inspire teams to be more vigilant to prevent incidents and crack down hard on offenders due to lost revenue.  Most Italian clubs don't reap much in the way of match-day income because the vast majority of the stadia they play in are owned by the municipalities they play in, but that's a trend that may be coming to an end.  

    Juventus opened the palatial Juventus Stadium last season, Roma has announced plans to move into a stadium of their own within the next four years and clubs like Catania and Palermo are also exploring the idea of building their own grounds.  If match-day income becomes a major slice of a club's income, they aren't going to want to forfeit that revenue because of a few knuckleheaded fans.

Relegation

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    Recognize the uniforms in the picture on this slide?  The causal fan probably won't recognize Sassuolo and Spezia, because you don't see many Serie B matches here in the States.

    Relegation has serious consequences for a team.  Financially, the lower tiers of the pyramid are far less lucrative than the top flight, meaning that a sell-off of some top players is generally necessary to compensate for the loss of income.

    In terms of reputation, a team that plays regularly in the top flight is a team that will attract more players to join the team and inspire players to stay once they're there.

    Obviously this extreme punishment should only be used in extreme cases, but will fans want to risk the ultimate humiliation of forced relegation just to publicly indulge in their prejudice?  Will teams be willing to let fans into the stadium who may pose a risk?  The answer will only be known if that blade is suspended above the heads of the clubs.