Giancarlo Abete and the Italian Football Federation don't have too many admirers in Italian football right now. The federation's insistence on applying a controversial—and confusing—rule on territorial discrimination has been met with a backlash from fans and clubs around the country. It's also created a lot of empty seats in stadiums up and down the peninsula.
The FIGC should be praised for being willing to tackle racism, but lumping regionalism into the same category is a dangerous game to play, and one that's a lot less likely to win you any supporters.
The spree of anti-Napoli chanting across Italy, even when the Partenopei aren't playing, is a reaction to what many fans see as the federation's attempt to neuter that rivalry. It reached a head when Napoli's own ultras sang derogatory songs about the city and then produced banners daring the FIGC to close the San Paolo.
They didn't, but they've closed plenty of sections around the country at other clubs. Roma are the latest to fall foul to the rule, and having already played games this season without their core support in the Curva Sud, they're due to face Inter without any fans in the most popular parts of the ground.
Racist chanting has rightly brought about fan bans in the past in Italy, and the clubs and federation should be applauded for wanting to tackle the issue head-on. It's more effort than is made elsewhere.
Songs about Billy Boys and Fenian blood are not uncommon at Rangers games in Glasgow. And chants about poverty in Liverpool are a regular feature during Premier League games, just as antisemitic abuse is a problem in games involving Tottenham. And yet, Ibrox remains open. The FA wouldn't dream of closing sections at Old Trafford; they didn't even take action when West Ham fans were heard chanting antisemitic remarks and making hissing noises in reference to Nazi gas chambers when their side met Spurs in 2012 (via Paul Hirst at The Independent).
Local grudges based on nothing more than location shouldn't be tarred with the same brush as such disgusting behaviour, at least when they're relatively tame. Which brings up another problem for the FIGC, because the arbitrary nature in which they apply the rule undermines it completely.
Whether or not they should have closed Napoli's stadium to make a point is one thing, but the argument was severely weakened by a pathetic lack of action against Juventus for the actions of a group of fans during the recent Turin derby.
Against Torino, some Juve supporters displayed banners mocking the memory of the 1949 Superga Air Disaster, a crash that claimed the lives of 31 people including crew and journalists, and the majority of Il Grande Torino, one of Serie A's greatest ever teams.
It was an insult not just to their rivals, but to all supporters of Italian football because the players who perished also made up the core of the national team. The club was fined €25,000 for the incident.
No stadium closures, and incredibly, it was only half of what Roma were charged for a group of around 20 of their fans causing a disturbance outside of the stadium before their away game with Bologna (all of that week's fines can been seen here in Italian).
The offending banners couldn't be punished using the territorial discrimination rules, because both clubs are based in the same city. But if the banners had been displayed by say, Milan or Lazio supporters? The reaction from the federation would be obvious.
That's an example of a major part of this problem. The banners were meant to antagonise. The songs about Naples being a dirty city that had a cholera epidemic in the 18th century are meant to antagonise. If you're going to punish such hostility, there needs to be parity. It can't be simply based on Geography.
And then, where do you draw the line? How much is too much?
A club's name followed by Vaffanculo is a common chant. It roughly translates as "go take it in the ass". It's an extremely common phrase in Italian, but one that you could say is homophobic. Fans like to sing that "Juliet is a slut" when they play against Verona, because Shakespeare's famous play is based in that city. Is that offensive to women, or residents of the city, or perhaps to literature enthusiasts? Others accuse Lazio supporters of being fascists or Nazis. That's something that a small minority of fans might embrace, but that is a serious insult to the vast majority. Is being called dirty really worse than being called a Nazi?
It's hard to go against something designed to put a stop to racism, but the FIGC needs to rethink its position. It punishes fans who have done nothing wrong—an Italian consumer watchdog is currently pursuing a case against the authorities for this reason, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport—and sends out the wrong message about Italian football, mainly that it's overtly racist rather than reflective of a country with a long tradition of regional identity.
The fact is that regional divides drive a lot of the narrative in football, and sport in general, and these kinds of songs are sung in stadiums everywhere. And regrettable as it might be, regionalism is also a part of everyday life. Sometimes it's harmless fun—take Harry Enfield's Scousers as a popular example—and sometimes it's not. But it exists all the same.
Another obvious fact about all of this is that you can't simply "rid" football of a social phenomenon. It's a social game and attending a professional match is a social experience. People are going to bring their best and occasionally their worst characteristics to it. The idea that someday football can be free of racism and sexism and homophobia and all of the other sicknesses that are currently festering away inside the otherwise beautiful game is ridiculous as long as those things exist outside of the stadium.
Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission is currently investigating claims that the government there sanctioned a police policy of racial profiling. Italy's first black government minister has been compared to an orangutan by a senator, who went on to warn that having a successful black person in government would encourage illegal immigration. Homophobic oppression in Russia has been thrown under the spotlight by the Sochi Winter Olympics. Nightclubs in Germany have been accused of employing xenophobic door policies.
This problem of discrimination exists all around us. It's not something that starts and stops at a referee's whistle. And the fight against it is not something that should be diluted by a confused attempt to end ingrained local rivalries.
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