x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Kevin-Prince Boateng's public stand against racism

The move to walk off the pitch in the face of the chants has earned support as it highlights the continued problem in Italy with the issue.

Kevin-Prince Boateng leaves the field during AC Milan's friendly due to racist chants.
Kevin-Prince Boateng leaves the field during AC Milan's friendly due to racist chants.

Italian football has not come back from its winter break quietly. Headlines yesterday were dominated not by Juventus's interest in strengthening their advantage on the Serie A table by planning a swoop for a new centre-forward, nor by the departure of Alexandre Pato from AC Milan back to Brazil. The overriding issue was the stance taken by Kevin-Prince Boateng and his club colleagues against racist abuse.

Boateng's decision after 26 minutes of a low-key friendly against fourth-division Pro Patria on Thursday to leave the pitch in response to the sustained monkey chants from sections of the small crowd aimed at him and his black and mixed-race teammates has been widely applauded.

Significantly, the backing given to Boateng by his colleagues on the field, by the Milan captain Massimo Ambrosini and by the club executives has also been partially endorsed by those at the top of the game. Giancarlo Abete, the head of the Italian Football Federation, called the abuse aimed at Boateng, Urby Emanuelson, Mbaye Niang and Sulley Muntari "intolerable".

Italian football's apparent acquiescence towards racism in its stadiums has often been pointed at, from elsewhere, as one of the sport's highest-profile examples of bad practice.

The game in Europe has just come out of a particularly unedifying year, 2012, for prominent racist incidents, and Italy contributed to the catalogue, from the abusive chanting by followers of Lazio in a Europa League match against Tottenham Hotspur, to the insults aimed, during an Italy friendly, by some Italians at Mario Balotelli.

Now a new year begins with what is being heralded as a potential watershed in the battle against an insidious enemy.

Certainly, many of Italy's opinion-makers want the Boateng episode to be a milestone.

"This must be just the start," urged the Corriere della Sera newspaper. "From now on, at the first hint of a chant against a black footballer, all the players must leave the pitch."

"At last, a reaction," wrote La Reppublica on its front page, saluting sport's role in taking a forthright stance on an issue that has become disturbingly prominent in society.

"Racism is on the rise in Italy and in Europe," the paper said. It highlighted the "hypocrisy" of pretending not to hear the monkey chants that too regularly disfigure matches and criticised an attitude that reckons games should be played out "at any price".

The Milan players, it wrote, "deserve a 'Bravo!' and a 'Thank-You!' for having done what the referee did not have the courage to do".

Referees in Italy, as elsewhere, have the authority to interrupt games because of racist behaviour by spectators and to abandon them if that behaviour continues. But that has not happened in the professional elite level of the sport.

Seven years ago, the Ivorian international defender, Marc Zoro, playing for Messina, responded to noisy, incessant racist abuse of him each time he touched the ball in a home Serie A match against Inter Milan by picking up the ball and threatening to leave the field.

He was dissuaded by colleagues. Professional etiquette makes it very hard for an athlete in a team sport to take the measure that Boateng did.

Successful sportsmen are trained to master and channel their emotions; they are hard-wired to think of the consequences of everything they do in terms of its effect on the team.

So as top-flight fixtures across Italy resume after a two-week holiday, the questions being asked are: will there be racist chanting at any of the 10 Serie A stadiums this weekend?

If so, will a referee act decisively? If not, would a player, with points at stake, do what Boateng did in the very distinct environment of a warm-up match in the otherwise bucolic Lombardy town of Busto Arsizio?

Though the message from most is that they should, and Boateng yesterday expressed his gratitude for the support shown for his actions from a wide range of fellow professionals - "it means a lot", he said via social media - the counter-argument, that to draw attention to the racists is to encourage them, or at least give them a significance they should be denied, has some backing.

Clarence Seedorf, until last June a Milan teammate of Boateng's and the black player with the most Serie A appearances in history, said: "By walking off you empower a small group to mess up a game. I'm not sure what happened was that positive."

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