Racist Abuse Against Kalidou Koulibaly Exposes Italian Football’s Refusal To Change

Italian football authorities could do a lot to confront racism in the sport. Why won’t they?

“When I played in Italy these things were happening and unfortunately, twelve years later, it seems the situation hasn’t changed,” remarked Lilian Thuram. “Do you know what that means? That not enough has been done and racism isn’t a priority for you.”

The former France, Parma, and Juventus defender was asked by the Corriere dello Sport newspaper about the taunts directed at Kalidou Koulibaly last month, but in truth he was speaking for any right-minded person who has anything close to a passing interest in Italian football.

It doesn’t matter that Koulibaly plays for Napoli, nor that it was Inter’s Curva Nord who showered him with a torrent of racist abuse. What matters is that Juventus fans have already been punished for the same offence against the same player this season. What matters is it is less than a year since Lazio fans posted slogans such as “Roma fans are Jews” alongside a picture of Holocaust victim Anne Frank wearing the Giallorossi shirt of their bitter crosstown rivals.

What matters is that it has been five years since Kevin-Prince Boateng and his AC Milan team-mates walked off the pitch following a string of insults during a friendly with lower league side Pro Patria. What matters is that when Dutch international Aaron Winter joined Lazio back in 1992, the walls of his new house were defaced with graffiti telling him to “go home.”

What matters is that, no matter how bad it gets, nothing ever changes.

This latest instance came on Boxing Day, with Napoli visiting San Siro only for Nerazzurri supporters to repeatedly taunt Koulibaly with monkey chants when he touched the ball. The 27-year-old was visibly upset to the point that he was given a second yellow card for sarcastically applauding referee Paolo Mazzoleni.

A number of tannoy announcements were read out at the stadium but that did nothing to alter the situation but, given the attitude of those in charge of both Italian football and the country in general, this should perhaps no be no real surprise. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the nation’s deputy Prime Minister downplayed the matter, trivialising what had happened to Koulibaly to a ridiculous degree.

“Racism is the stuff of idiots in 2018, but let’s not put everything in the same pot,” Matteo Salvini said during an appearance on TV show Tiki Taka. “In the stadiums they also sing ‘Milan in flames’ – would that be racism too? [Leonardo] Bonucci was booed by the Milan fans, is that racism? Healthy teasing among fans is not to be considered racism.”

Meanwhile, the President of the Italian FA, Gabriele Gravina told state broadcaster RAI that the match official “perfectly followed procedure.” Yet that is simply untrue as the regulations state that if the PA system warnings have no effect, then the referee should halt the match as another announcement is read before ultimately suspending the game if the abuse continues.

“FIFPro and UEFA jointly condemn the racist abuse aimed towards Napoli player Kalidou Koulibaly, last Wednesday during a league match at FC Internazionale in Milan,” read a statement on the governing body’s official website. “We are very concerned by this unacceptable racist incident and by what appears on the surface to be a failure to respect the widely-recognised three-step anti-racism protocol.”

FIFA President Gianni Infantino went further still when asked about the matter ahead of last week’s Globe Soccer Awards. “My first reaction was sadness, indignation, and solidarity with the player,” he told Sky Sports when asked about what happened to Koulibaly. “With concrete actions, we need to send a clear message. We must condemn this behaviour with severity.”

There had been talk of suspending the entire league for a week, yet in Italy – as usual – those in charge backed down from sending exactly the kind of statement that could truly make a difference. Already on a warning for similar behaviour previously, the Curva Nord was closed for two games while the rest of the fixtures went ahead as planned.

Perhaps the one noteworthy move came as Inter fans were prevented from travelling to Empoli for their next outing, not by the football authorities but instead by the local government. It was an important decision, but one the sport should not need as football could be used as the vehicle for real, tangible change rather than being held back by wider society.

The Italian FA could become a leading light in terms of tolerance, good behaviour and integration. If the authorities on the peninsula truly do want their league to return to being at the vanguard of European football, it is in matters such as this where they can truly make a difference. By being so proactive, the FIGC and its members can send the message that not only does the country need to change, but that it is possible to enforce that shift by making such outdated behaviour inexcusable in the stadiums.

Breaking this endless cycle of intolerance and hand wringing is actually quite simple; deliver punishments that force clubs to act as agents of change rather than letting them off with paltry fines or suspended sentences. Replacing those with points penalties or by cancelling games would send the message that Serie A will no longer allow its image to be tainted by the racists and bigots.

Having taken up roles outside Italy, Koulibaly’s current manager knows it shouldn’t still be this way. “I was lucky enough to work abroad for nine years and these things have been eradicated in those countries,” former Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti told students at the University of Campania Luigi Vanvitelli earlier this month. “It’s something that Italy must do as a country and it’s not that complicated. Unfortunately, ignorant and rude people continue to go to stadiums. They should take courses in education and respect. Enough is enough now.”

The time has come to show these people that they cannot win, that football matches are a place where such behaviour will not be allowed. Otherwise we are left with a league that does nothing, a league that allows Kalidou Koulibaly to be treated just like Lilian Thuram was over a decade ago and the same way Aaron Winter was thirty years earlier.

For those who love Serie A, that is just not good enough.


Adam Digby is an Italian football writer for Flo Sports, Four Four Two and other outlets. He is also the author of the book Juventus: A History In Black & White. Follow him on Twitter.