When is racism not racism? That's the question being asked in Italy right now. Can tensions between two groups of people, ethnically identical and from the same nation, but with deeply rooted cultural differences, really be described as racism?
The league has taken a strong approach to the debate, punishing AC Milan for a section of their fans singing abusive songs about their opponents in their recent home clash against Napoli.
To some, it was just more of the usual—albeit distasteful—conflict between opposing groups of fans. To others, it was a vocal expression of the destructive north-south divide in Italy. It's a divide that manifests itself not only in much of the country's political struggles, but also in day-to-day life.
The FIGC was within its rights to interpret UEFA's rules in such a way, but in doing so they've posed some difficult questions for football across the continent—and for people in Italy.
As UEFA sees it (via the organisation's Disciplinary Regulations, here in PDF), racism involves:
Any person who insults the human dignity of a person or group of persons by whatever means, including on the grounds of skin colour, race, religion or ethnic origin.
That's including—but not limited to—colour, race, religion or ethnicity. The importance is put upon human dignity.
There's a clear divide between Italy's industrial north and the impoverished south. No one here would deny that. It defines how many Italians see their country, and it shapes the nation's politics.
When Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister, it was only the support of Umberto Bossi's Lega Nord (The Northern League). Bossi's party is federalist and regionalist in nature and in the past has even gone so far as to advocate secession. In the north it enjoys anywhere between 10 and 25 percent of the vote come election time.
In that context, it's easy to see how the FIGC would interpret the offending song—it describes Naples as filthy, full of Cholera and inhabited by people who don't use soap—as racist, or at least regionalist. And no matter who was singing, it could be considered an insult to human dignity.
If the culprits were a foreign team in the Champions League, there'd be a clear argument for punishment. The fact that Neapolitans are Caucasian doesn't even come into it—though many seem to think racism can only exist when its victims come from non-European origins—because the abuse stereotyped a group of people as being dirty, poor and lazy. Level such insults at an African team, for example, and see what reaction you get from fans and the media.
The problem is just that involved people from the same country.
So how are we to interpret provocative chanting in football stadiums? There's a similar debate going on in the Premier League right now with Tottenham supporters and their appropriation of the word "Yid." Can there be such a thing as "acceptable" insults if everything could be construed as an affront to human dignity?
That's a question Inter's ultras posed during the Nerazzurri's recent home game against Verona. After unfurling a huge banner that read "Now we'll see how ridiculous you're being with the farce of territorial discrimination," the Curva split in two. One side held a banner reading: "This can be" and sang offensive songs about their rivals, AC Milan. The other abused Naples under a banner that read: "This cannot."
Groups of fans followed suit across the country, highlighting the embarrassing flaw in a well-intentioned but ill-conceived move to curb racism, which is this: Where do they draw the line?
In central Italy, Fiorentina fans sang anti-Naples songs and were punished. Roma ultras did the same, and met the same end. It's only a two-hour drive between the Italian capital and Naples, and much of the abuse hurled at Neapolitans is also used to insult Romans. And yet still, the insult to human dignity was deemed to be regionalist.
That would have been enough to highlight the issue, but Napoli fans took it a step farther. They sang abusive songs about themselves and displayed a huge message taunting the league that said: "Naples has cholera, now close our Curva."
It's an awkward situation for the league to be in, and one without an obvious exit strategy. Clear and decisive action on racial abuse in football is obviously needed—not just in Italy—but it can't be heavy-handed.
All the FIGC have done is play into the hands of hard-line supporters who want to leave the league no choice but to close every stadium in Serie A, as outlined in an open letter from the Inter ultras (In Italian here).
The letter also draws attention to the fact that it's seemingly fine to boo and insult Federico Balzaretti, a white Italian, but not Mario Balotelli. And while it would be disingenuous of the ultras to say that Balotelli has never suffered any form of racist taunting, there is a point to be made about the fact that not every harsh word hurled at the Milan striker is to do with the colour of his skin.
Right now it seems like the best intentions of those in power have led them astray. The danger is that by being overly sensitive, they're seeing racism where there isn't any and creating more division rather than unity.
There's a case to be made for both sides. The FIGC is right to tackle a difficult issue, and the fans are right to object to being unfairly labelled as racists and shut out of games. Now the law makers need to consolidate their thinking and be sure that the change that they're inviting is the change they really want.
A league free of racist chanting would be a better league for everyone, but it shouldn't be achieved by persecuting fans unfairly. The authorities need to know what they are and aren't fighting. Where—and how—they'll draw the fine line in between remains to be seen.
What do you think? Colin O'Brien is on Twitter: Follow @ColliOBrien
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