Another Serie A match, another round of racist chanting from a minority of fans for whom the color barrier in sport apparently never came down.
What is Italy's problem?
This time, Mario Balotelli was playing for his club against Roma. The match was at AC Milan's San Siro stadium, and it was Roma's travelling fans who embarrassed club and country—directing monkey chants at Balotelli and other black players on the field.
Things got so bad that the referee stopped the match in the second half, with a warning delivered over the stadium's PA system (via The Telegraph).
Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri was rightly disgusted. He told reporters after the match:
People should go to the stadium to see two teams battling each other on the pitch, not this sort of thing, it's a place for the uncivilised. Above all, the culture in Italy is backward. Tonight we had racism, laser beams flashed in the eyes of players and an interrupted match.
The incident is the just the latest entry in a catalogue of shame for Italian football and its failing quest to eradicate a deep-rooted cultural problem.
CNN's John Sinnott investigated the issue in an illuminating feature, touching on the prevalence of neo-Nazi and neo-Fascist groups in Italy and highlighting the political, racial and historical themes motivating the country's racist behaviour. Some believe Italy's dilapidated stadia are partly to blame.
Whatever the cause, Italian football and the issue of racism are never long apart.
In February, Inter Milan were fined around $65,000 after their fans abused former player Balotelli in the Milan derby (via BBC). Inter fans had already been fined $26,000 for racist chants against Balotelli in a match that didn't even feature the player a couple of weeks before (via Daily Mail). UEFA again fined them after similar actions during a Europa League tie against Tottenham (via BBC).
Balotelli's Milan teammate Kevin-Prince Boateng was among those targeted by Roma fans on Sunday. In January, Boateng left the field in protest of racist chants from fans of fourth-division Pro Patria during a friendly match (via BBC). In April, a section of Juventus fans also singled out Boateng, which led to a $40,000 fine for the club after their Serie A clash against Milan in Turin (via Daily Mail).
These are just a few recent examples of what is a considerable blight on the reputation of Italian football. The most recent episode, on Sunday, prompted this reaction from FIFA president Sepp Blatter on Twitter:
Appalled to read about racist abuse in Serie A last night. Tackling this issue is complex, but we’re committed to action, not just words.— Joseph S Blatter (@SeppBlatter) May 13, 2013
Blatter has made some missteps on racism, but his organisation are making positive steps. FIFA recently set up the Task Force Against Racism and Discrimination with a view to tackling the problem in a uniform way.
Chaired by FIFA vice president and CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb, the task force will put a three-part proposal to FIFA congress at the end of May. In summary, they want an official at every stadium monitoring for possible incidents of racist abuse, and they also hope to establish a two-tier outline for punishments and put greater onus on leagues and teams to deal with the issue.
Tier 1 on the penalties scale would result in, "a warning, a fine, or the playing of a match behind closed doors." Tier 2 offences could be met by, "point deductions, expulsion from a competition, or relegation." (via FIFA)
The best thing here is that Tier 2 offences would not be judged solely on their severity. They would also be applicable to repeat offenders, so a club whose fans don't learn their lesson would rightly be faced with a very serious outcome.
Serie A has needed these measures for some time. Inter fans have already been found guilty of racist abuse three times in 2013, yet they've escaped with combined fines of less than $150,000—less than some players receive on a weekly basis.
What's the right penalty for Roma?
Roma are also repeat offenders. Their fans abused Balotelli in 2009 when he was playing for Inter. The punishment that time was a measly $10,000 (via World Soccer).
If FIFA get their proposal through, the game at large will have a set of guidelines to work from and strong deterrents to enforce. But can Italian football really afford to wait for that to happen?
I say no. What's needed is firm action against Roma that tells the world Serie A and the Italian football authorities are ready to take this on with vigor. A points penalty and sentencing Roma to play their last game of the season behind closed doors would be a good place to start.
From there, the penalty should escalate for subsequent incidents. If Roma's fans engage in racist abuse during their Coppa Italia final against Lazio, then they should be banned from the competition next season.
Italian football cannot afford to wait for a FIFA mandate to crack down on racism. Bold steps need to be taken now, and the first should be in reaction to the abuse of Balotelli on Sunday.