This evening, AS Roma travel to Inter Milan and an interesting aspect of the match is Chris Smalling coming up against Romelu Lukaku. Together at Manchester United since the striker moved from Everton in 2017, they both left the Premier League for Serie A in the summer.
Smaldini, as he’s been dubbed in both England and Italy, has proved a hit at the centre of Roma’s defence, and Lukaku has 10 goals in 14 league matches. Them coming up against each other is certainly worthy of a media angle, but not simply because of the colour of their skin.
Corriere dello Sport’s Thursday front page shouted out ‘Black Friday’. Most of those criticising it didn’t read beyond that, and in fairness they didn’t have to. Characterising the two players due to the colour of their skin is clearly wrong, and the newspaper continued to do so in their article.
‘In the face of the idiots who do “buu”, tomorrow we should all do “oooh” (like children). We play a great Black Friday, but they are not end-of-season sales.
‘Let’s look at Inter-Roma through the personal challenge, considering the relationships but also the roles on the pitch, of two giants of colour.’
‘Buu’ is the word given in Italy to the sound of monkey chants.
Looking at the match through the prism of two star players happening to be black of course has the element of race, yet the newspaper’s outdated and ill-judged argument is that it can’t be racist if the intention is praise.
There’s no denying that Italy is behind some other countries when it comes to tackling racism and even acknowledging it to be a serious issue. Victims can be turned into a problem, and there’s usually a backlash against the backlash.
When Mario Ballotelli was again a victim recently, a Brescia ultra group put out a lengthy statement criticising him, their own player, and ended it with: “Those who are indignant – even rightly – for some apparently racist incidents that took place inside the stadiums, let us remember that the theme of racism today is often used to create a new alarmism among the public, useful – like a horse of Troy – to introduce new instruments of repressive and mass control, which otherwise would not be justifiable and acceptable.”
Lazio president Claudio Lotito, after leaving a recent meeting which had been set up to tackle racism, said:“‘Buu’ doesn’t always mean a discriminatory or racist act. When I was little, often people who were not of colour, who had normal, white skin, did ‘buu’ to discourage other players.”
And pretty much nothing happened.
Corriere dello Sport are living in this environment, so after just their initial front page and subsequent article it was possible to give them some benefit of the doubt whilst still pointing out how wrong they’d got it.
That’s what Sport Witness and others did, with our original tweet on the matter being:
There’s so much left to learn in Italy that this is going to be a long, long road. Corriere dello Sport think they’re doing the right thing here, yet get it so wrong. pic.twitter.com/F3wQgapbBK
— Sport Witness (@Sport_Witness) December 5, 2019
Surely they’d come out with an apology and explain their good intentions had been let down by a poor choice of language and that front page. But no, they continued, and reposted the front page via social media, keeping it as the top story on their website all day.
Then director Ivan Zazzaroni went on the attack.
Zazzaroni, a minor celebrity in Italy, stated: ‘Digital platforms? I would say dustbins. Made up of noble grudges. Cheap indignation. A nice thought a day keeps the doctor away.
‘Armies of right-minded people flock to the web these days to die their beautiful souls white. Having identified the racist on duty, go, two strokes on the keyboard… you feel yourself to be a better man in a better world.
‘White, black, yellow. Denying the difference is the typical obvious stumbling block of anti-racism racism. Black Friday… was and is only the praise of difference, the pride of difference, the magnificent wealth of difference.’
He insisted their ‘innocent headline’ had been ‘transformed into poison by those who have the poison inside.’
Corriere dello Sport’s insinuation was that those who found the front page racist were in fact the real racists.
Roberto Perrone, who wrote the original article, later made it clear the headline had come from those above him: “When the director called me to tell me about his idea of the title, I said okay, I didn’t see anything bad, I didn’t perceive any racist message. If this is racism, then racism is a minor problem, we can rest assured.”
That it was even discussed and approval was sought suggests at least some at Corriere dello Sport weren’t as blissfully ignorant as they insist.
Throughout Thursday the biggest response, at least in terms of the number of people sending direct criticism, came from Italians. Whilst it’s correct to say there’s a bigger problem in Italy than some other countries, labelling a whole country racist is simply fighting racism with xenophobia.
Many of those Italians going for the newspaper went particularly for Zazzaroni.
In July of this year he’d revealed Sinisa Mihajlovic was suffering from Leukaemia, before the Bologna manager had wanted it made public.
Mihajlovic said it had ruined 20 years of friendship, just to sell a few extra copies of Corriere dello Sport. Zazzaroni later put out a self-serving apology.
In October of last year, La Repubblica reported Zazzaroni had been criticised by an Italian anti-fascist organisation, after he agreed to take part in ‘a debate on football organised by Casapound… in Rome at the headquarters of the neo-fascist party.’
The Guardian reported in September that Facebook and Instagram had disabled the social media accounts of the ‘Italian neo-fascist party’, and that Casapound ‘was founded in the late 1990s as a pro-Mussolini drinking club. Named after the 20th-century American poet Ezra Pound, who was known for his fascist sympathies and antisemitism, it claims to support a democratic variant of fascism but it is accused of encouraging violence and racism.’
Zazzaroni hit back at the criticism, saying he was attending a debate on football, and despite it being an official Casapound event, despite it being at their headquarters, and despite his name appearing first on the flyer advertising it, he wasn’t going there to legitimise anyone.
As well as being director of Corriere dello Sport, Zazzaroni is also known for appearing on Italy’s version of ‘Dancing With the Stars’. He’s worked as a judge on the show, and in March of last year refused to give a mark to a couple consisting of two males.
Denying he was being homophobic, Zazzaroni insisted his decision was based on ‘aesthetics’ and that the couple would have been better suited to another programme. He later partly blamed social media for the response he received.
All of this gives some context behind why some Italians aren’t taking his latest reasoning seriously.
And now to Friday, the first words on Corriere dello Sport’s front cover read: ‘Lynching against a newspaper that defends freedom and equality for a century’
There’s only so much benefit of the doubt left in the world.
Social media is once again blamed, and it’s repeated that those who find the ‘Black Friday’ front page problematic are the real racists.
AS Roma and AC Milan have both banned the newspaper until the end of the year, to which the reply is: ‘Accused by a grotesque people’s court, we were disqualified for a month from Roma and Milan. It sounds like a joke, but it’s all true. Until January we will no longer be able to enter the houses of the two American-driven clubs.’
Roma especially get it: ‘In the morning, after some Twitter posts by the usual hate professionals, Roma set fire to the web through the English profile controlled by the director of the digital area, Paul Rogers, who became famous on these screens when he denied being himself to escape the questions of our correspondent in London. From that moment on, the lynching started.’
They further speak of a ‘lynching’ from CNN and then get back to having a go at Roma: ‘And we remind Roma, which assures us that they no longer want to provide interviews, that the last authorised interview, complete with an interpreter and two press office professionals to monitor the contents, dates back to April 2018, shortly before the Champions League semi-final against Liverpool: in short, if you don’t want to talk to us because you don’t know how to accept our freedom of criticism, Black Friday has nothing to do with it. It is better to call it Black Out.’
Despite their continued insistence it’s everyone else’s fault, Corriere dello Sport do apologise to both the players involved, before insisting they’ll continue to fight racism and ignorance, the latter relating to their detractors.
Had they apologised on Thursday morning, it wouldn’t have been necessary to scratch the surface around those in charge at the newspaper. The results of which surely bring further doubt on their true intentions.
Italy, and the country’s chance of moving a fight against prejudice forward, deserves better.