Italy needs a makeover

“In England, they identify the players coming in and, if they are professional, they are allowed to play. Here instead we get Opti Pobà, who previously ate bananas and then suddenly becomes a first-team player with Lazio.”

This is not how a potential Federation President should chair one of his meetings. Not in Italy. Ever since Carlo Tavecchio, the heavily favoured candidate to take over the FIGC, uttered these words, the international footballing community has reacted with disgust. Not the Italian one, where Tavecchio still has a chance to take over, provided Italy’s major clubs don’t attempt a sudden volte-face.

This incident will, like many others before it, plunge Italy into infamy, and says a lot not merely about the inverted pyramid of power in the old boot, but also about how race and immigration are perceived there; about how plenty of revulsion hasn’t provided the necessary storm to hound Tavecchio from office, nor indeed necessarily helped Italians perceive racial questions in the same way as some of their European neighbours.

The emphasis in this piece will always be on the word some– there are plenty of kind-hearted people among my countrymen who treat other nationalities and creeds with the respect they warrant, though percentages regarding a subtle, widespread and multifaceted phenomenon are tough to quantify.

Yet the national debate on race in Italy can be incredibly skewed, and what’s even more worrying is that those either at the top or in a position to shape public opinion can be some of the worst transgressors.

Whether it is the Gazzetta dello Sport publishing a cartoon of Balotelli as King Kong or Tuttosport trying some suggestive double entendre (“Li abbiamo fatti neri”, meaning “we have beaten them black and blue”), it is worrying that certain mainstream newspapers are trying to go for the cheeky joke (and refusing to acknowledge the racist nature of their gags) even after the Ghanaian-born Mario Balotelli, (who else?) had buried Germany with an impressive double to send Italy through to the European Championship Final. Why a damn gorilla? Why always remind him he’s black? Shouldn’t he just be an Italian by now?

It’s a bit of a déjà vu in Italy, that of the higher ups embarrassing a country it does not represent and caring little for the public backlash, something akin to when Silvio Berlusconi called Barack Obama “tanned” upon the latter’s inauguration. This is probably why a critical mass sufficient to topple Tavecchio has yet to form. This may also explain why Joseph Minala came out in his defence: Minala plays for Lazio, whose president is backing Tavecchio to the hilt.

But it is frankly too easy to just blame it on the politicians and pretend that Italy is as tolerant as the Western European democracies it so desperately wants to emulate. Truth is that for all the upstanding people we have here, there are others who cross the line in all walks of life- and it happens all too often.

What can you say when someone claims that a council house has been “filthy since Albanians have been living in it”, or refusing to sleep with black girls because “they smell”? The first quote comes from an otherwise sensitive, articulate and moderate person, the second from a hip-hop enthusiast who repeatedly boasted of his ethnic friends. Both acquaintances, both Italian.

Admittedly there are times when ignorance, or rather the lack of an African component in modern Italian culture, could be an excuse, like when a local baseball team hit the ol’ blackface routine to lampoon Wesley Snipes from comedy film Major League. As Italy had never had a history of blackface comedy, or indeed of recent slavery, who would be offended? And how could the perpetrators know they were in the wrong?

On the flipside, such naivety could have something to do with a selective national memory (they all are), one that has conveniently left Faccetta Nera (little black face) behind in the post-war Italiani Brava Gente trend, when a rebuilding Italy pointed the finger at Germany and tried to forget its own sins. Faccetta Nera was a popular sing celebrating Italy’s African conquests in the 1930’s, achieved thanks to gas attacks and exploding-and outlawed- dumdum bullets.

Maybe the problem goes deeper than John Foot’s contention that your typical immigrant can never truly be “one of us”. Maybe we never even think about him to begin with, or rather not what he might feel when we cast the umpteenth stone. He isn’t even a part of the culture, of the local mindset, and is there to be made to made fun of.

Even then, when the anti-racial indignation hits the fan, it is dismissed with incredulity: “We’re not racist! Can’t you take a joke? DELIVER US FROM THE PC POLICE!”. Ironically, Italians are (rightly) never far from the war path when the boot is on the other foot, whether an English journalist makes a lazy crack about Neapolitans, international websites immediately cry racism as a reason for Mario Balotelli acting up in a Serie A game or when Das Bild goes full pelt on the anti-Italian propaganda. For a people whose history is synonymous with immigration, Italy could surely do unto the newer generations what its forefathers would have liked to have done unto themselves?

The country’s take on Ghanaian- born striker Mario Balotelli is particularly infuriating, and shows that even those who are well versed in racial sensitivity don’t quite grasp many of its niceties. For example. when Super Mario was the target of a Juventus ultras banner proclaiming that “there are no black Italians”, some threw it back at him, his provocative posturing blamed as the catalyst for the incident. Just to rub salt in the wound, there are those who have rushed to the offending ultras’ defence: they weren’t racist, but just used those terms because they knew it would hit him where it hurt most. It is telling that some would be willing to defend a group of ultras when it comes to race – when they would draw instant condemnation in many other fields. For a start, it’s a racist attack. Secondly, why give a bunch of fans not known for their moderate views the benefit of the doubt? Even taking this argument at face value, it may not be racist, but it’s racially insensitive. Is that something to feel proud of?

Tavecchio’s behaviour after the scandal broke has been nothing short of shocking, declaring that “Few have done what I have for the Third World”, plugging the work he claims to have done to bring more immigrants into the amateur footballing fold. Whilst I am no expert on such matters, even taking him at face value doesn’t absolve him: “I helped a black guy play football, so it’s fine if I don’t treat him as an equal. What a fabulous master I am!”. Worse, his use of “negro banana-eater” and “handicapped women” is essentially pre-empting post-scandal classics like “I have plenty of black friends!”. His delivery smacks of a racist doing everything he can to crudely prove that he isn’t- but he’s so out-of-touch that he can barely keep it under the surface.

It is frankly depressing that a country that places so much importance on manners should seem ready to flout them when it comes it to immigration and race. It’s not just about a supposed lack of awareness, but about treading carefully when dealing with certain subjects. Just because you don’t understand how insulting a particular word can be, doesn’t mean you should bulldoze through the situation with all the subtlety of resident Northern League lunatic Mario Borghezio spraying DDT over African prostitutes on an early morning train.

What does it say of Tavecchio, and Italy, that a 70-year-old should use racially charged language in what was effectively the run-up to the most important job interview of his life? Maybe that is the most depressing thing of all.