Wednesday evening’s match between Inter and Napoli has generated much drama and controversy, demanding a new look at an old problem.
Even before the match began there were clashes outside the San Siro between Inter and Napoli supporters resulting in a death. As minivans carrying travelling Napoli fans made their way to the stadium they were surrounded by more than 100 people armed with sticks. Two people appeared to be knocked over with one of them taken to hospital with critical injuries. A 35-year-old man, Daniele Belardinelli, who was with a group of Inter fans, was taken to hospital in Milan on Wednesday evening where he later died.
Reports are still unclear exactly how the incident developed. According to the BBC, police told reporters Belardelli had not been hit by a minivan from Naples and that they were studying CCTV footage of a dark SUV at the scene. Three Inter fans were also arrested prior to the match for violence against Napoli supporters.
Just days before we enter 2019, it’s is both remarkable and regrettable that it still needs to be stated unequivocally: People should not be killed while travelling to a football match.
Ultra groups in Italy have a long and powerful history but incidents like these simply cannot continue. And yet, there was even more controversy inside the stadium.
Napoli’s star centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly was subjected to racist chants throughout the match by a group of Inter fans. Announcements were made over the PA system multiple times as warnings to stop the racial abuse. When fans did not stop, Napoli manager Carlo Ancelotti asked for the match to be suspended three times but to no avail.
Ancelotti says Napoli asked for the game to be suspended on 3 occasions for racist chanting aimed at Koulibaly. Speaker read out 3 warnings. Ancelotti bewildered why game wasn’t interrupted. Adds next time Napoli will stop playing even if it means they forfeit the game
— James Horncastle (@JamesHorncastle) December 26, 2018
The situation boiled over in the 80th minute when the match was still scoreless. As Matteo Politano broke down the wing and pushed the ball in front of Koulibaly, the Senegalese defender put his arm on the Italian making minimal contact. The referee halted play and presented Koulibaly a yellow card, presumably for stopping a potential counter-attack. Not happy with the call, the Napoli player sarcastically applauded the referee, Paolo Mazzoleni, and received his marching orders with a second yellow card.
Imagine getting racially abused at San Siro, getting a yellow for putting your hands on an opponent in a contact sport and venting your frustration by sarcastically applauding to get sent off. pic.twitter.com/mNs17tAoXd
— Serie A News (@TransfersCalcio) December 26, 2018
Unsurprisingly, Twitter blew up with reactions ranging across a wide spectrum. Regardless of your opinion of the foul call and subsequent red card, the racial abuse Koulibaly endured throughout the match and his reaction to the call cannot be separated. Koulibaly is to be commended for keeping his cool for those 80 minutes. It’s tough to expect a human being to be racially abused for over an hour, have calls for halting the match ignored, and then not show any emotion when he feels hard done by an ambiguous disciplinary decision. That’s a higher standard than that of which we hold the perpetrators of racial abuse.
The Guidice Sportivo (Sporting Judge) announced the punishments Thursday morning. Inter will be forced to play their next two home matches behind closed doors with no fans in attendance; a third game is to be played with the Curva Nord closed due to the offensive chants towards Napoli fans, as well as those of a racist nature in Koulibaly’s direction. This is actually the strongest punishment we have seen in Italy for these infractions. And while some Inter fans are complaining about previous bans not being as harsh, the only way to eradicate the problem is to start handing out more severe punishments.
Really disappointing to see so much whataboutism in response to the Koulibaly incident. Continuing to hold everyone to the same piss-poor, ineffective old standards is a great way to make sure nothing ever changes.
— Andrew Barker (@barkerrant) December 27, 2018
Meanwhile, Koulibaly will still sit out Napoli’s next two domestic matches, one for accumulating five yellow cards and the second for the sarcastic applause towards referee Mazzoleni on Wednesday.
Wednesday morning, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini took to Twitter to say, “In 2018, you should not die for a football match.” Salvini added that he would meet with the leaders of Serie A and Serie B at the start of the New Year so that stadiums “will once again be a place of fun and not violence.”
Nel 2018 non si può morire per una partita di calcio.
A inizio anno convocherò al Viminale i responsabili di tifoserie e società di serie A e B, affinché gli stadi e i dintorni tornino a essere un luogo di divertimento e non di violenza.
— Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) December 27, 2018
Salvini continued to voice his input on the situation Thursday evening appearing on the show Tiki Taka saying, “Racism is the stuff of idiots in 2018, but let’s not put everything in the same pot. In the stadiums they also sing ‘Milan in flames’, would that be racism too? Bonucci was booed by the Milan fans, is that racism? Healthy teasing among fans is not to be considered racism.”
This is quite rich in hypocrisy as Salvini’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric has played a role in Italy’s tense political climate. In fact, the day after the latest elections in Italy back in March, in which Salvini’s Lega party received the second most votes, an innocent Senegalese man was shot to death on the Ponte Vespucci in Florence.
Racism and xenophobia at football stadiums raise problematic questions: does the hatred begin at sporting venues and then spread to society; or is the problem societal and its visibility at stadiums a manifestation of larger societal dynamics? How much responsibility is borne by the owners and administration of the football clubs and their relations with rabid Ultras? How much responsibility lays with the home team to appeal to their fans to desist from racist abuse? Why doesn’t the FIGC adhere to its own rules of suspending a match after three warnings to fans via the PA system? Why is it that a referee who stopped a match because of territorial chants against Napoli in May is no longer in Serie A but in the Provincial Youth Leagues? These questions do not have easy, simple answers but if there will ever be any change in Italy it is time to start asking and discussing them.
Kevin-Prince Boateng, Sulley Muntari, Mario Balotelli, Kalidou Koulibaly; the list goes on. This wasn’t the first time a footballer was racially abused in Italy and sadly it won’t be the last either. But each time it happens, we should all stand up and deem it unacceptable and put the issue before anything else that happens on the pitch.