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Racist abuse poisons Italian game

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Milan's Kevin Prince Boateng and Mario Balotelli

A couple of years ago, Milan's yellow-tied chief executive Adriano Galliani lamented what had become of Serie A. "It's like with theatres and restaurants," he told the pink pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport. "There are beautiful theatres and ugly ones, luxury restaurants and pizzerias."

That comment of his came to mind once again when reading the columns of one of Italy's great sportswriters, Gianni Mura, in La Repubblica on Monday morning. "Ask for the bill, get up and leave," he wrote. The plate he'd been served the night before, billed on the menu as a feast of football between Milan and Roma at San Siro, had instead left a bad taste in the mouth.

What had provoked Mura's revulsion and that of others dining on this game?

Unfortunately, it wasn't simply attributable to Milan's garish new gold third shirt, the advertising campaign for which included a Champions League badge on the sleeve. That in itself had caused quite a stir, as Fiorentina coach Vincenzo Montella noted, perhaps it was a little presumptuous to accessorise it so considering Milan had yet to qualify for the competition ahead of next season. When confronted with conspiracy theories, Galliani scoffed: "To try to read something into that is deranged."

An eyesore or not, the controversy around this match was more to do with the shameful chants afflicting the ears. After half an hour, monkey noises were heard from a vocal minority in the away section. Their target was Kevin-Prince Boateng, the player who had so courageously walked off after he and his fellow black teammates had suffered racist abuse during a friendly against Pro Patria four months earlier.

Depressingly, it wasn't the first time since then that Boateng has been insulted on account of the colour of his skin. During the warm-up of Milan's game against Juventus in Turin at the end of last month, he raised a finger to his lips, indicating that those abusing him in the stands should shut their mouths. Juventus were subsequently fined €30,000.

Mario Balotelli repeated the shushing gesture on Sunday night as he too came under attack shortly after Boateng and another teammate had done. He had missed the above mentioned Juventus game because of a three-match ban. He'd reached the yellow card limit on being booked away to Fiorentina a fortnight earlier. Typically that brings a one-match suspension. But two more were added when Balotelli was adjudged to have shown dissent towards the fourth official at full-time.

Another 'moment of madness' from Mario? No, not at all. He had lost it, so to speak, because he'd heard monkey chants aimed in his direction. Visibly distressed, Balotelli had sought to bring them to the attention of referee Paolo Tagliavento supposedly telling him, at least according to Mediaset's lip reader "either they stop or I'm leaving."

The threat of a walk-off didn't appear to be taken seriously. The game was allowed to continue. Therefore you can understand why Balotelli took out his anger and frustration on a match official at the close of play. Fiorentina were fined €20,000 and Milan asked that the racist abuse he suffered be taken into consideration on appeal. His ban was reduced to two-games.

But a sense of injustice remained. When Balotelli returned against Catania he was booked again. Afterwards, he said: "The referees aren't fair with me. I always take 100 fouls and they aren't whistled for. If I protest, I instead get booked. This isn't right. They took off a game from my suspension perhaps because they realised they'd made a mistake, but it's not possible to play like this."

It's worth bringing this up because whenever Balotelli is abused one of the lines of defence you often hear the perpetrators use is that their "buuu" chants aren't racist, but rather they're either done "for effect", the justification being - as if this were just another form of sledging - that they know it will wind him up and put him off his game and or that it's an expression of their frustration at his style of play.

Pierluigi Casiraghi, Balotelli's former Under-21 manager, made this case while the player was at Inter. "It's his personality that's irritating, it's not racism... He has a big personality but sometimes exaggerates." That's OK then, is it? Well, no, it clearly is not and by making out that it is or at least trying - however good the intentions are - to apologise for or at least attempt to explain such actions, it does nothing to discourage them.

Even so, that argument was again trotted out by some on Sunday night. Abuse had rained down on Balotelli after he was booked for a slightly over the top challenge on Marquinho in the 39th minute. But he'd come in for some stick beforehand and if anything you could suggest that this was him taking his anger and frustration at that out on someone.

That aside, he kept his composure, something that certainly couldn't be said of Sulley Muntari. No doubt mindful that his teammate has been victimised of late, he went over to protest the decision to book Balotelli and, on seeing referee Gianluca Rocchi move to show him a yellow card as well, the former Portsmouth midfielder tried to stop the Man in Black [or lime green in this case] from extracting it from his pocket. Having made the mistake of laying his hands on Rocchi, Muntari was sent off.

Half time came five minutes later but not before Balotelli was abused again as he went to take a corner. When the game restarted after the interval and the racist chants resumed shortly thereafter, Rocchi suspended the game, ordered for another announcement to be made over the PA system to say that if it didn't stop then the suspension wouldn't be temporary but definitive while also instructing Roma's captain Francesco Totti to make an effort to influence the section of the away support to stop with the racism.

As an approach, it appeared to work. The chants subsided or at least the nature of them changed - aim was taken at Balotelli's family instead - and 97 seconds later play recommenced. Whether it was the right course of action to take or not continues to charge debate. Rocchi, for what it's worth, was following protocol established after a match between Chievo and Bologna on May 24, 2009 in which Luciano was racially abused. Another between Cagliari and Inter on September 20, 2009 was suspended for two minutes because of monkey chants heard when Samuel Eto'o and Balotelli touched the ball.

Match officials were empowered to halt matches and then, in the event that the abuse continues, call an end to them. The thinking behind it is as follows: if a referee abandons a game it sends a stronger message because it comes from an institution rather than a team acting in isolation.

It also leads to peer pressure from the majority of law-abiding fans. Remember, for instance, how when Boateng walked off at Pro Patria, almost all those in attendance, apart from the offenders, actually applauded. There was clapping too at San Siro when Rocchi suspended the game, "a sort of relief," captain Massimo Ambrosini said. "They probably couldn't take it anymore."

No one wants to see a game called off. Seedorf has touched upon this, and Boateng thinks it's an argument with merit. He suggested that ideally - and there is nothing ideal about these kind of situations - a game should be suspended, the perpetrators identified, ejected from the ground and play resumed. Banning orders should then follow and prosecutions be made.

There's a fear, though, that abandoning games would lead to problems of public order, not that there were any in the Pro Patria incident, although that, it must be remembered, was a friendly in a small ground. Wading into a Curva to kick out the offenders, one suspects, might be met with resistance, the hope being that rather than protect fellow supporters, tribalism is forgotten and they give up the offenders among their own.

If Milan had walked off on Sunday night, they could assume they'd risk forfeiting the game. Considering what was at stake - Milan require a win or a better result than Fiorentina's on Sunday to qualify for next year's Champions League - you can perhaps appreciate why the club and even the players suffering the abuse didn't want to jeopardise that. Some have said it's a shame they didn't, that it's hypocritical given they promised to do so, but the protocol for incidents like last night's was clarified and they vowed only to walk off if no action was taken and racist abuse continued.

That constitutes the short-term strategy to kicking racism out. One feels it could still be better executed. The long-term one - and this could take decades - is, as Lilian Thuram explained in his book, "to educate the new generations, change their way of seeing [the world]."

An already complex issue is made even more so in Italy by the phenomenon of campanilismo - the attachment to a town or region rather than country. Napoli fans have, for years, had to endure chants imploring "Vesuvius to wash them." That might not be considered offensive to those outside of Italy, but relative to the culture there, it most certainly is and deeply so.

Roma's general manager Franco Baldini alluded to this on Sunday night, although his reasoning on this occasion seemed flawed, comparing the monkey chants with those of "Roman bastards" from Milan's Curva Sud and asking how do you distinguish between the two? La Gazzetta dello Sport called it an "own-goal."

The chant of "Nerone, bruciali tutti" - Nero, burn them all!", however, which was also heard from that end and interpreted by some as spurring Balotelli on, might at least, in the service of his argument, been better, given it invoked the Roman emperor who played his lyre while Rome went down in flames in 64AD but also had a double entendre centring on the meaning of "Nerone" - which can also be translated as "Big Black." One wonders whether Balotelli would be happy about being referred to and encouraged in this way or not.

Anyway, the blurring of two kinds of discrimination in that chant - and whether they're one and the same and should be treated more consistently as such - gives yet another indication of just how complicated this issue can get. All told, it was a most unsavoury night of football at San Siro. A 0-0. Another red card to add to Muntari's as Totti was also sent off for elbowing his former teammate Philippe Mexes. It did nothing to enhance the Italian game's reputation at home or abroad.

On Monday, the disciplinary commission ordered Roma to pay a €50,000 fine and issued a warning that a repeat could see them play behind closed doors. Shortly afterwards, the club issued a statement. "AS Roma condemns any form of racial abuse," it read. "This type of behaviour from any football supporters, including ours, is completely unacceptable. We are committed to facing this issue head-on to rid our sport of this problem and respect for all."

The fight against racism goes on.

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James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.

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