A Deafening Silence

Italian soccer clubs have a racism problem. It’s indicative of the sorry state of Italian civil society that almost nobody dares to speak openly about it.

If soccer reflected popular sentiment, recent matches in Italy provide ample food for thought. On May 16, 2012, the Italian Cup final, theCoppa Italia, was played between AS Rome and SS Lazio (Lazio was the deserving winner). Outside the arena, the area around the stadium resembled a warzone. Since the death of a Lazio supporter in 1979 (he was hit in the eye by fireworks), every match between Rome’s two main teams provides an opportunity for urban warfare. Stabbings are the norm, as are clashes with police. This time, due to the high stakes, security measures were particularly intense and major incidents were prevented.

Yet, nothing could be done to avoid other kind of crimes. AS Rome had the chance to win its tenth cup, and thus the chance to permanently place a star on its jersey. The team’s supporters were bragging about it and didn’t fail to point out that their opponents from Lazio have only won five cups. Lazio fans answered promptly with another banner: “It is always the same story: you want a star on your chest.” The reference was not just to the cup: some Lazio supporters enjoy calling Roma’s fans “Jews,” which they intend as a form of insult.

The media paid little attention. Yet on November 22, it had already happened. A gang of forty Lazio supporters raided a pub in central Rome where supporters of the English team Tottenham Hotspurs were drinking. Seven English fans had to be hospitalized after being stabbed and beaten. The following day, during a Europa League match between Lazio and Tottenham, Lazio fans reverted to their anti-Semitism, singing about the “Tottenham Jews” (the club has a large number of Jewish fans) and raising a “Free Palestine” banner that was intended as an anti-Semitic insult, not as a clever comment on the intricate politics of the Middle East.

Where’s civil society when you need it?

The final touch to this unfortunate story emerged during the last match on 16 May: Before the teams entered the pitch, the Korean singer PSYhad been invited to perform his two-hit repertoire, “Gentleman” and “Gangman Style.” In case my girlfriend reads this, let me make it clear that I am no fan of PSY. He is a poor musician, but the masses love him (I still think he is a genius, though – and if you do not take him seriously, he is great fun). He had come to Rome announcing that he “wanted people to have fun.” He posted happy pictures of himself on Twitter while he toured the Italian capital. Yet at the stadium, he has been booed and whistled like there was no tomorrow.

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If I went with my musical taste, I would have to say that he deserved it – finally. But I cannot help but think that the negative response he received from Lazio fans wasn’t due to his music but due to the shape of his eyes. PSY happens to be Korean.

He evidently struggled to understand what was happening: After performing “Gentleman,” he tried to win back the fans by declaring his love for “Italia” and asked for a second chance before performing “Gangnam Style.” There’s a passage in the song when PSY usually pauses, gives a staunch look, and waits for his audience to scream: “Oppa Gangnam Style!” The only thing he heard from the Lazio and Rome fans was a loud “boo!” At the end of the song, he briefly thanked the audience and fled the stage. The next day, he posted on Twitter that whenever he feels unhappy he watches a video of himself performing in Seoul in front of 80,000 people. Go for it, PSY! Some of his followers argued that the singer was booed because tickets were too expensive or because he reportedly received 130,000 euros for performing two songs. Well: That’s a bit naïve. The players on the pitch make more money simply by kicking a ball.

I’m not so much surprised by the fact that these instances occurred (idiots have always raised a ruckus and often enjoy wrapping themselves in flags and posing as fans to give meaning to their lives) as I was disgusted by the lack of reaction from civil society. Violence is quickly forgotten, and anti-Semitism is apparently perceived as a normal opinion.

Disrupt soccer to wake up Italy

I’m a Lazio fan myself, yet after episodes like these I believe that Rome’s soccer teams should be barred from international competitions. This is not to punish violent and anti-Semitic loners, but to raise awareness in society. Can you imagine what reactions Germans would have? If it is true that Italy is numb and only thinks about soccer, the only alarm that can wake Italians up may be the interruption of the soccer season.

It is not by chance that 94 percent of immigrants in Italy believe that they have been discriminated against because of their race. More than ten percent of immigrants suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. And more than 75 percent of Italians over 50 recently declared in a survey that “the presence of migrants can create dangerous situations in Italy.” Italy is often perceived as a smiling and welcoming country, yet this happy cliché is fading away.

It is not just the numbers. I met an American traveler on a train last month, who told me how he had planned to avoid Italy on his continental trip, as it has become a “racist country” (US tourists have recently been stabbed in Rome). He preferred traveling to friendlier places.

It’s possible that the crisis is exacerbating such tendencies. Unfortunately the country isn’t ready for the hardship it endures: the lack of civil society means that there is no safety net that can prevent total collapse, and that it’s hard to negotiate a way out of the crisis. I feel sorry for Italy, and for Europe.

Stefano Casertano, The European Magazine

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