AP Interview: Italian players' rep bemoans racism tolerance

ROME (AP) — It was the day after Christmas and the festive atmosphere was quickly ruined when a soccer fan died in clashes outside of the venerated San Siro stadium in Milan.

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Inside the arena, the situation grew worse when Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly, who is black, was targeted with racist monkey noises by Inter Milan supporters for the full 90 minutes.

After Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti pleaded with the referee to no avail for the match to be suspended, Koulibaly sarcastically applauded the official and was sent off with his second yellow card.

Days later, an emergency summit of Italian soccer and government leaders called to address the problems of fan violence and racism resulted in little more than opposing opinions.

"The feeling I took home was that we don't all view the problem in the same manner and we don't all want to confront it the same way," Damiano Tommasi, the president of the Italian players' association, said in an interview this week with The Associated Press. "Not everyone was convinced that this is unacceptable."

No surprise then that, nine months later, fan racism remains a serious problem for Serie A and there has been a complete lack of punishment after three cases of discriminatory chants during the opening five rounds of the Italian league.

Inter Milan's Romelu Lukaku, AC Milan's Franck Kessie, and Fiorentina's Dalbert Henrique — who are all black — have been targeted by racist chants but no sanctions have been handed out by the Italian league, federation or police.

"There's always someone who says, 'Yes, but. Yes, but that's not racism. Yes, but it's only one person. Yes, but it's not a racist insult. Yes, but we can't prevent someone from saying these things inside a stadium. Too many 'Yes, buts,'" Tommasi said. "That results in a level of tolerance that doesn't come into line with other countries."

With coaches like Ancelotti and Antonio Conte at Inter having recently returned home after experiences abroad, plus the arrival of more high-profile foreigners in the Italian league like Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus and Lukaku, who recently transferred from Manchester United, the racism in Serie A has taken on a new dimension.

"They notice the difference much more than other players and coaches. And they're personalities who are known internationally. Their voices gain more attention," Tommasi said.

As Conte said recently, "I'm back in Italy after three years and I've discovered that the situation has really worsened. In England whoever offends someone pays for it because they put them in jail right away and throw away the key. That's why so many families go to the stadiums there."

The racism isn't just against black players. Juventus midfielder Miralem Pjanic was recently insulted as "a Gypsy."

Then there are degrading territorial chants constantly aimed at Napoli in which supporters of other clubs associate Napoli with cholera or sing that the southern city should fall victim to an eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

During Napoli's opening match of the season at Fiorentina, Ancelotti uncharacteristically lost his cool at the final whistle and confronted opposing fans behind his bench.

"After 90 minutes of insults, I turned to the crowd and suggested that they just go home," Ancelotti said. "It's certainly not pleasant to hear non-stop insults."

Fiorentina fans, meanwhile, have been known to celebrate the Heysel Stadium disaster, when 39 people — mostly Juventus fans — were killed in a stampede at the start of the 1985 European Cup final.

"Insults have become an accepted part of the fan culture," Tommasi said.

An extra complication was revealed by a recent police crackdown on Juventus "ultra" fans linked to alleged infiltration by the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta crime mob: Militant-like supporters allegedly blackmailed their own team by threatening racist chants which would result in a costly stadium closure if the club did not provide them with extra tickets for resale.

Solutions for fighting racism and other offensive behavior have been established in the English and French leagues, where high-tech cameras and listening devices inside stadiums can help authorities identify offenders, who then face harsh punishments.

Gerardo Mastrandrea, the Italian league judge charged with deciding disciplinary measures, has few tools to work with besides the official referees' report from each match. If the referee does not report racist chants, Mastandrea can't rely on fan videos circulating on social media to hand out punishment.

There was progress, however, when Atalanta's 2-2 draw with Fiorentina last weekend was suspended briefly during the first half due to chants aimed at Dalbert, following FIFA's "three-step process" for handling racism inside stadiums.

The FIFA process requires the referee to briefly pause a match at the first hint of discriminatory chants and request an announcement asking fans to stop. If the chanting persists, the referee can suspend the match and order the teams into the locker rooms until it stops. If that doesn't work, the referee can stop the match definitively.

"The rules are there, they just need to be applied," Tommasi said. "We could sit here and talk about solutions for months. But in terms of the regulations there are only a few moves to be made, we just need to have the courage, strength and — above all — the desire to say these people can't be inside the stadiums."

After last season's racism summit, then-Interior Minister Matteo Salvini announced that he opposes suspending matches because racist chants are too difficult to identify.

Salvini lost his office in a political gamble this month but remains popular for his hard-line stance against migrants.

"Unfortunately," Tommasi said, "athletes and sports in general have little to learn from society in general these days in terms of integration and inclusion."

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Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf