On Saturday, Moise Kean – a 19-year-old footballer born in Italy to Ivorian parents – scored his fifth goal in five games playing for the country’s biggest team, Juventus, and its national team. The most exciting player to burst on to the Italian football scene for years, Kean should have enjoyed an uncomplicated moment of adulation. Instead he was put in his place.
In a previous goal celebration at Cagliari the week before, Kean had responded to racist abuse from fans by standing stock still, arms spread wide and palms upwards. His face wasn’t vengeful: he appeared peaceful through the sweat. But afterwards, Leonardo Bonucci (Kean’s captain in the national side, and his Juventus teammate), said Kean was half to blame for the racism because of his reaction to his goal.
I had watched Kean play for Italy against Liechtenstein the week before, and despite a couple of air-shots, he looked the finished article: he was both generous and lethal with the ball. There was something of Giorgio Chinaglia(the feisty Lazio legend) about him: he scored his goal that night through willpower alone. Five years after Mario Balotelli was scapegoated for Italy’s exit from the 2014 World Cup, here at last was another Italian-born black man who could lead the line and, hopefully, pierce the hate.
Which is why Bonucci’s comments were so depressing. There wasn’t deliberate nastiness in them, but something almost worse: the meanness was instinctive and subconscious. His teenage teammate was being bullied and Bonucci didn’t take his side. It sounded like that familiar sneer: “The black kid has got to learn.”
All this comes at a time when the country is aching with the realisation that the far right is back in power and haunting the streets. Every day there is grim news: another immigrant shot, non-Italians explicitly excluded in job and flat ads. There’s racial abuse in classrooms and on sports pitches – often from teachers and parents. Doing the straight-arm Roman salute associated with Italian fascism is so common it’s no longer even news. A journalist for La Repubblica is under protective escort because he wrote a book, NazItalia, about it all.
So the way Kean is treated is almost like a litmus test for the state of the nation. One doubts he has much desire to be that figure, but that’s how it will be for as long as he’s scoring goals for Italy when many don’t consider him Italian.
It’s a subject that Max Mauro, an author and lecturer, has been studying for years. His great book The Balotelli Generation showed in painstaking detail how “non-Italian” children face obstacles – registration hassles, journalistic stupidity, tepid support – about which “real Italians” have no idea. “With the exception of sporadic PR initiatives,” says Mauro, “education on anti-discrimination and anti-racism issues is practically non-existent in Italian football.” It’s the lack of an “educational path” that he sees as the problem: a 10-game ban for a player’s racism is obviously pointless if it builds resentment rather than fellowship.
Even those PR gestures constantly backfire. FIGC, the Italian FA, often imposes stadium stunts that only present far-right ultras with an open goal: a minute’s silence, or a reading from Anne Frank’s diary, will be interrupted by terrace crews singing the national anthem or turning their backs, and thus they hijack the national news yet again.
It wasn’t always like this. One of the founding visions of the ultra movement – the organised, fanatical groups supporting Italian teams – was that it should be apolitical: the “curve” behind the goal was a refuge from the politically inspired terrorism that rocked Italy in the 1970s. But many groups were imitating that violence in often playful, sometimes deadly, ways and over the decades, many terraces chose to become openly fascist.
That happened in part because extremist parties, Forza Nuova in particular, sent militants on to the terraces to colonise them. But there was also a pull from the terraces, because many second-generation crews were noticing that the shibboleths of ultra life – paramilitary organisation, defence and attack, unity, blood, honour and loyalty – were reminiscent of the slogans from Mussolini’s squadrismo. Certain ultras began to see themselves as the shock-troops of a new political dawn.
So when high-politics lost its ideological direction in the 1990s, the terraces were offering conviction and clarity. Their banners carried trite rhyming couplets, but they were, week in week out, slowly rehabilitating Benito Mussolini. Media coverage magnified it all, as did the internet. During an unprecedented migrant crisis, many ultra terraces – which had once been all about belonging – started to lecture Italians on who didn’t belong.
Ambitious politicians took note. If you looked as tough as those ultras – and denounced multiculturalism, semites, migrants and all the rest – you rose fast.
Matteo Salvini, the country’s interior minister, is just the most famous example of that career trajectory. He learned his ignorance on Milan’s terraces. The ultras’ punchy banners became his incessant tweets. Ultras’ racism, he recently said, was simply a jocular taunt – it happened to everyone. Recently he very publicly hugged the Milan ultra boss convicted of drug-trafficking.
So it doesn’t look like top-flight players, the FIGC or politicians will face down racism. Which is why many ultras, anarchists and populists, turning away from the racism and far-right politics they have encountered on the terraces, have instead started a grassroots revolution, founding dozens of new football clubs since the turn of the century: Afro-Napoli, Ideale Bari, Saint Precarious, Nobody Offside and many more. They sound eccentric and small-fry until you go and visit them and see that there’s a Togolese manager, a Ghanaian kit-woman and a striker who came out years ago.