Tom English: Balotelli tale reopens racism scandal

Balotelli, with teammate Kevin Prince-Boateng. The pair were racially abused by Roma fans this weekend. Picture: Reuters
Balotelli, with teammate Kevin Prince-Boateng. The pair were racially abused by Roma fans this weekend. Picture: Reuters
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ON SUNDAY in Milan, Mario Balotelli and some of his black team-mates were racially abused. Again. By fans of Roma. Again. The sanction handed down to Roma, after the game at the San Siro was halted for two minutes in an attempt to stop the chanting, was feeble.

Again. It was €50,000. Oh, and the usual finger-wagging about docking points and throwing them out of competitions and closing their stadium in Rome if it ever happened again. Whatever.

Balotelli is the most targeted black player not just of his generation, but of any generation. He is the go-to guy for the Neanderthals. He lives his life in a groundhog day of monkey chants while the authorities stand idly by and do nothing but utter weasel words ahead of administering fines that are cringe-makingly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Everybody talks a good game on tackling racism but nobody delivers. Certainly not where Balotelli and some of his Milan team-mates are concerned.

We have spoken about Balotelli in the recent past in this space, we have catalogued the abuse he has been subjected to from his teenage years with Inter Milan and the pathetic reaction on football’s part, but the last of those columns was at the beginning of the year. On the list already there is, from 2009 when he was just 18, the monkey chants directed at him by his old friends at Roma and the punishment the club received in the aftermath; a €7,600 fine. There is the racist song that was sung by Juventus fans a month later that was so completely laden with racism that the Juve president apologised profusely afterwards. A year later Chievo fans targeted him. He was substituted late in the game and mocked his attackers by applauding in their direction. For that ironic gesture, Balotelli was fined €7,000. For picking on him for the colour of his skin, Chievo were fined not one cent. Around the same time, Balotelli had a bunch of bananas thrown at him in a bar in Rome. Onwards and downwards we go into the gutter. Porto fans chanted racist songs about Balotelli when he was at Manchester City and were fined €16,700. When playing for Italy at Euro 2012 Spanish fans targeted him and Spain were fined £16,000 as a result. Croatian fans did the same and once more the punishment was pathetic.

That same summer, Balotelli was mocked by a right-wing politician in Italy when depicted as a migrant picking crops in a field in a photoshop image. The respected Gazzetto dello Sport ran an image of Balotelli as King Kong. When he went back to Manchester a Stoke fan called him a monkey and was banned. When he moved back to Milan from Manchester he was hardly in the door five minutes when the brother of Silvio Berlusconi made some idiotic comments relating to the colour of his skin. When somebody from your own club is getting involved in this scene then you know you don’t really have a chance. Why is it always him? Because it is.

In the past few months, Balotelli has been racially abused during the Milan derby in February and abused again by Inter fans a few weeks later even though he wasn’t even playing in the match where the chanting was going on. Inter were fined relative buttons both times. This is a poison that goes unchecked from club to club, from country to country, from championship to championship and the latest manifestation of it was last Sunday at the San Siro when Roma fans monkey-chanted the game to a two-minute halt and then monkey-chanted again when the match restarted despite the Roma captain, Francesco Totti, pleading with them to stop.

What we’ve had since is noise. Nothing but noise. The usual thing from the Italian football authorities and the same old tune from Sepp Blatter. It was in Argentina in 2001 when Blatter stood up at a Fifa summit and promised vengeance on all those in the game who abused footballers based on the colour of their skin. Blatter, it was said, was incandescent at the growing scourge of racism and was there to tell delegates that he was going to do something about it. Not on his watch would football turn a blind eye. Zero tolerance was the mantra. Zero tolerance and heavy sanctions for those who didn’t get the message. It wasn’t the Sword of Damocles he was promising, but “more than the Sword of Damocles”, whatever that was.

It would take several pages to document the individual cases of racism that have either gone unpunished or punished weakly since Blatter delivered his message of zero tolerance, but in Balotelli’s story we have the scandal of inaction in microcosm.

There are things we need to remember about Blatter and his take on racism. Firstly, it was only two years ago that the Fifa president said there is no racism in football. By that he meant that there is no on-field racism, no player-to-player racism, and even if there was, he said, it should be sorted out at the end of a match with a handshake between the abuser and the abused. You might remember the storm that greeted his comments. For two days of a tempest of condemnation Blatter stood firm. Eventually he accepted that he said something wrong and apologised. He answered calls for his resignation by saying that he needed to stay in office to continue the fight against racism. Continue? Beyond empty rhetoric, nobody quite knew when this fight of his had actually started.

Secondly, when Kevin-Prince Boateng, a team-mate of Balotelli’s at Milan, walked off the field after suffering racist chanting from a gang of knuckle draggers during a friendly at Pro Patria in January he was applauded by the world game for his bravery. Blatter was applauding too – in his Blatteresque way. He commended Boateng on his courage but said that walking off was not a solution. He said that if Boateng or Balotelli or any other black player tried that in a competitive game then they would forfeit the match. Whatever happened to the line about clubs whose fans engaged in racism being punished? Zero tolerance, yes. But towards players taking a stand against the bigots, it seemed. “So many people in Fifa can do something and they should wake up and do it,” said Boateng, later. “They should not tolerate it. They should ban people forever from the stadiums. That’s the first thing you can do.”

So when the Milan players were being targeted last Sunday they didn’t walk off – or “run away” as Blatter put it after the Pro Patria incident – for they knew the ramifications. The game was halted briefly and Roma were fined and life has carried on as before. Nothing will change until the game takes racism seriously and everybody knows it. Certainly, the president of the Italian football federation, Giancarlo Abete, knows it.

Abete says he will ask Uefa’s Michel Platini – oh, what a crushing disappointment Platini is on the racism issue – to introduce tougher anti-racism measures when they meet at the association’s executive committee congress in London on 24 May. The Italian knows that the fines system is a dismal failure and needs replaced with systematic targeting and banning of racists and, if needs be, the closing of stadiums or sections of stadiums in the event of repeat offenders.

Will they get serious or just talk about getting serious? This brings us back to Blatter. He described as “appalling” the €50,000 fine handed out to Roma and in doing so he spoke of the Task Force Against Racism and Discrimination he has set up, a body that plans to have racism observers at certain “hot” grounds and has outlined a two-tier penalty scale going forward, tier one offences resulting in a warning, a fine or the playing of a match behind closed doors, and tier two promising that Sword of Damocles which Blatter was talking about a dozen years ago in Argentina – points deductions, expulsion from competitions or relegation.

The task force has potential given the calibre of people who are on it, among them, Boateng and fellow players, Jozy Altidore of America and Serey Die from the Ivory Coast as well as Yury Boychenko, chief of the anti-discrimination section of the United Nations Human Rights office. But is anybody listening? If Boateng reports that Roma or Inter or Chievo or Juventus are continuing their chanting will the task force have any clout? You hope it would but history makes you cynical.

The image of the week in Italy was of Balotelli holding his finger to his lips when looking at those who were monkey chanting at him. It is to football’s shame that for the umpteenth time the striker had the appearance of man who was trying to hold back the sea.