Reclaiming the achievements of Fabio Liverani, Italy's black pioneer

Dino Panato

Fabio Liverani is the Italian national team's first black player and Serie A's first black manager, but his achievements are being taken away from him.

AC Milan's appointment of Clarence Seedorf last November thrust the ever-present issue of race in Italy back into the spotlight. For once, the story was positive: Serie A's first black manager handling Mario Balotelli, the first black player to feature for the Italian national team. Granted, the narrative was somewhat threatened by Milan's continued poor form, but what actually torpedoes it is the facts. Clarence Seedorf is not the first black manager to lead a Serie A team. Mario Balotelli is not the first black player to take the field for the Azzurri. Both honors belong to a man who history seems determined to whitewash: Fabio Liverani.

Born in Rome to an Italian father and a Somali mother in 1976, Liverani's story is fascinating not just for his winding career but for the questions it raises about identity. What does it mean to be black in Italy? And who counts?

To be a black footballer in Italy is to be compared to wild animals. It is to be constantly jeered every time you touch the ball -- sometimes even by your own fans -- thanks to your skin color. For Balotelli, it's to be referred to as the "n***** di famiglia" by the brother of your club's owner. It is to be told, by the mayor of Verona, no less, that you have brought the abuse upon yourself.

For some, to be a black footballer in Italy is to accept that your race will always be used as a weapon against you, beating you into mute acceptance. For Kevin Prince-Boateng, it's being forced to walk off the pitch after receiving unbearable abuse, then to be told, by Seedorf himself, that your protest simply empowers your tormentors. And curiously, in Fabio Liverani's case, to be a black footballer in Italy is to be forgotten, your achievements, carved out against the backdrop of an incredible hostile atmosphere, discarded.

* * *

Liverani got his first significant footballing education in Palermo's youth system, but found himself wandering nomadically though the Italian league pyramid for years. Between 1994 and 2000, Liverani appeared for Palermo, Cagliari, Nocerina and Serie C side Viterbese before finally getting his crack at Serie A with a transfer to Perugia. There, he made 32 appearances before making the most significant move of his career: to Lazio and the howling terraces of the Stadio Olimpico.

But even if the support wasn't keen on having a non-white player anchor their midfield, management was impressed

It was a move from the frying pan into the fire. The midfielder had already become used to racial abuse, recounting: "A lot of people were insulting me. I remember all the the time how I used to return home crying when I was a kid. Then I entered the adult world and still there were people shouting at me. I simply ignore them and play my best." On a match against Reggina during his time at Perugia, in which he suffered particularly ferocious abuse, he said, "That day wasn't the first time it happened and probably won't be the last." But Lazio was different.

Liverani wasn't the's biancocelesti's first black player — that distinction falls to Aron Winter — but the fans were by no means well adjusted at that point. Not long after his transfer, the then-24-year-old was faced with racist slogans on the walls of the training ground; the abuse continued for most of his tenure at the club, from both Lazio fans (who naturally denied any wrong-doing) and their opposing counterparts. But even if the support wasn't keen on having a non-white player anchor their midfield, management was impressed. They had shelled out around €10 million for Liverani, and they were far from disappointed by his performances. Liverani would go on to become integral to the Lazio team. He made more than 100 appearances for the club and eventually earned both the captain's armband and a call-up to the national team.

Tullio Puglia / Getty Images

His national team debut come in a friendly against South Africa in 2001. Called up by Giovanni Trapattoni as a replacement for Francesco Totti, Liverani became the Azzurri's first-ever black player. Because of a lackluster season at club level, he was considered a long shot for selection for the 2002 World Cup, and despite a strong first performance, he was indeed overlooked for the tournament. He didn't make another appearance for Italy until August 2006, a bizarre five-year gap for a player of Liverani's qualities, even accounting for the Azzurri's strength in midfield.

2006 also saw a move at club level as Liverani made the switch to Fiorentina, playing two seasons with the team as they struggled for a place in the Champions League. He then returned to his first club, Palermo, where he captained a team that included Edinson Cavani and Fabrizio Miccoli. Liverani was still influential as a player and a leader, but by this point age was catching up to him and he suffered through a slew of injuries, each one seemingly worse than the last. After missing the first three months of the 2009-10 season, he was replaced as captain and eventually fell out of the squad entirely.

An inconsequential spell at Lugano (the Swiss club, not the Uruguay defender) followed, but a career in coaching loomed for Liverani. After his Lugano contract was terminated by mutual consent — he didn't play a game for them — Liverani ended up at Genoa as a youth coach. Making his way through the ranks in Guardiola-like fashion, he was eventually promoted to first team manager on June 7, 2013, replacing the departing Davide Ballardini. Although he was sacked seven games into the season after earning just four points with a goal differential of minus-5, that move made Liverani Serie A's first black manager, five months ahead of Seedorf's appointment at the San Siro.

Nevertheless, the narrative seems to have been hijacked. Seedorf, we are told, is Serie A's first black manager; Mario Balotelli the Azzurri's first black player.

There are several reasons it's important to give Liverani the credit due to him. Liverani's position as a pioneer in two fields isn't just an honor, it's a validation of the suffering he had to endure during his time. To deny his achievements is to minimize his impact and therefore to increase the burden of those who must follow in his footsteps. Balotelli might have looked to Liverani as a guide and a mentor, but instead it appears that he didn't even know that there even was someone who'd already walked along his path; the same seems to be true for Seedorf. The duo are essentially reliving Liverani's past, forced to be trailblazers despite the fact that the road to equality in Italy had already been at least partially traversed. Ignoring Liverani represents a major setback in the continuing struggle of integration.

Why has this happened? One reason could be a matter of skin tone. Both Balotelli and Seedorf are significantly darker than Liverani, whom at first glance could, and sometimes does, pass for white. But while his ethnicity might pass beyond notice now, that certainly wasn't true for him as a player — Liverani had to navigate exactly the same hurdles as those who followed. The banners, the monkey noises, the boos, the chants and the tears were all there for him, as well. And one might argue that the process of being whitewashed in his retirement is even more offensive.

The duo are essentially reliving Liverani's past

It speaks to the issue of identity on a deep level. Where Liverani was first identified as black — a label he does identify with — by the fans and media, that has now been stripped from him thanks to the arrival of new players and managers. The recency of it all is the most shocking part of this: History has a way of forgetting people and events, but the fact that Liverani was a Serie A manager in 2013 and now isn't even mentioned when Seedorf is touted as the first black manager in Italy is both bizarre and cringe-worthy.

Though Liverani said, speaking to the BBC in 2002, "I just hope people will not think of me as the first black player of the national team, but as an important player." He was still the first black player to feature for the Azzurri, and that makes him enormously important. He was the first black player of the Italian national team, Lazio's first black captain and the first black manager in Serie A. He deserves the recognition for his achievements, because he has suffered for them in ways that no one else can ever know. And both Seedorf and Balotelli deserve it too, if only to take off some of the pressure that comes from walking such a brave and lonely road.

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