Last week, AC Milan signed one of the world’s premier soccer players in Mario Balotelli, who called it a dream come true that he was joining Italy’s most prominent soccer club. A week later, that dream isn’t as beautiful. Not after an Italian news station caught Paolo Berlusconi, an AC Milan vice president and the younger brother of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, calling Balotelli “negretto della famiglia,” which translates roughly to “the family’s little n—–.”
Balotelli, a black Italian, is no stranger to racism. During previous stints in Italy and at international club matches, fans have greeted him with monkey chants and bananas. Fans of one club banded together to tell him that “there are no black Italians.” But while Balotelli may be subject to the worst of racism, the kind that comes from his own countrymen and his own club, he’s hardly alone. Here’s a far-from-comprehensive timeline of racism in European soccer — just over the past month:
January 3: AC Milan’s Kevin Prince-Boateng, a Ghanaian, responds to racist chants from opposing fans by picking up the ball, punting it into the stands, and walking off the pitch. His teammates and opponents followed, and the match was called. Earlier in the game, fans assaulted Sulley Muntari, another Ghanaian, with monkey chants. “It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve heard these things, but I’m 25 now and I’ve had enough this bullshit,” Prince-Boateng, who threatened to walk off the field in future matches, said after the game.
January 29: Jozy Altidore, an African-American, faces monkey chants from fans of Dutch club FC Den Bosch during a club match in the Netherlands. Altidore shrugged off the chants, refused efforts from officials to stop the match, and played on. “It’s only going to make them stronger if we back down,” Altidore said afterward. “I just want to get on with it and play and win the game.” AZ Alkmaar, Altidore’s club, wins 5-0.
January 30: Barcelona’s Dani Alves, a black Brazilian, is the subject of racist chants in a Spanish cup match against rival Real Madrid. In a moment of brutal truth, a dejected Alves declares after the match that soccer’s long fight against racism is “a lost war.”
January 30: European soccer’s governing body fines three clubs — Italian club Lazio, English club Tottenham Hotspur, and Slovenian club NK Maribor, for fans’ racist and anti-Semitic chants during games in November. Lazio’s sanctions include one home game played behind closed doors with no fans in attendance.
January 31: Japanese player Yuki Nakamura quits his Slovakian club because of repeated racial abuse. Nakamura was frustrated because his teammates and club officials did little to protect or defend him.
February 5: FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, upholds sanctions against both Bulgaria and Hungary’s international teams for racist chants during World Cup qualifying matches. Both are forced to play one match behind closed doors, and FIFA warns that further incidents could result in expulsion from Cup qualifying.
In England, the Football Association has taken steps to combat racism that have been more aggressive than those in other countries. The FA suspended Luis Suarez for eight matches for racist taunts directed at Patrice Evra, who is Senegalese. It has banned fans from matches for racist taunts and levied heavy fines and sanctions against clubs whose fans exhibit racist behavior. John Terry, the English national team’s former captain, was charged with a crime for racial remarks he made in the course of play (he was found not guilty). Complaints have still arisen from black players like Rio Ferdinand, and racism still rears its ugly face far too often. But England’s serious and aggressive response seems to have thwarted much of the overt racism from fans that was once a daily feature of its matches, even if it hasn’t eliminated racism altogether.
England is hardly a total success story, but it has at least been successful enough to drive the perception among abused players that it should be a model for FIFA and other domestic federations to follow. FIFA and other governing bodies have long held the position that players who respond to racist taunts are the ones deserving of serious punishment, while the perpetrating fans and clubs receive only slaps on the wrist. That needs to change. There’s no reason that players like Prince-Boateng should have to threaten to continue walking off the field, that players like Nakamura should have to quit their clubs, that players like Altidore and Alves should be reduced to pretending they can’t hear the chants or to accepting that racism is a feature of the game they play. That they have should be viewed as no less than a tragedy, and one that’s worth addressing with more than t-shirts and advertising campaigns. If the war against racism in soccer is lost, it’s only because there’s been no serious effort to fight it.