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Italian soccer's gestures to combat racism and anti-Semitism are empty

If Italian soccer wants to truly fight bigotry, it needs to finally start banning its worst fans.

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SS Lazio v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Before games were played in all major Italian soccer leagues last week, players and fans were asked to be quiet while a passage from Anne Frank’s diary was read out loud from the stadiums’ loudspeakers. Players observed these events while wearing shirts with a picture of Frank, a German-born Jewish girl who was killed during the Holocaust, and the words “No to anti-Semitism.”

This gesture came in response to Lazio ultras, known as the Irriducibili the Immovables — who left stickers depicting Frank dressed in a Roma shirt and anti-Semitic slogans in the plexiglass barriers of the Stadio Olimpico. The stadium is shared with their rivals, Roma, and the stickers were found near the Curva Sud, where Roma ultras sit. Lazio fans sit on the opposite end, in the Curva Nord.

The chosen passage from The Diary of Anne Frank reads:

I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.

Referees also gave each team’s captain Frank’s diary and Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved. The captains were asked to give the books to the children who walk out with the players before games.

The response to Lazio’s stickers wasn’t limited to Italy’s stadiums.

Italian president Sergio Mattarella denounced the initial intolerance as “alarming for our country.” The head of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, an Italian, said “using the image of Anne Frank as an insult against others is a very grave matter.” Italian Prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, called the act “unbelievable, unacceptable and to not be minimised.”

Lazio’s owner, Claudio Lotito, announced that the club would organize an annual trip to Auschwitz for 200 fans to “make sure we don't forget certain episodes, so that these lads can know what it is we're talking about.” Lotito also took a wreath to a synagogue in Rome and is reported as saying: “I am here to express our total dissociation towards all xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism.”

All of these reactions seem good on the surface. Serie A, and Lazio especially, needed to immediately respond to the Irriducibili’s anti-Semitism. This was yet another incident in Italian soccer’s long history of bigotry — not just from Lazio, but the league in general — and there needed to be an appearance of condemnation after it gained international attention. Unfortunately for the league, it’s getting harder to believe that its sympathies are sincere.

Lotito’s wreath was found in the River Tiber soon after he left the synagogue. He was recorded saying that giving the gift to the synagogue was all a show as he waited to board his plane. He betrayed his efforts by revealing what we already know: that his and the league’s responses to Italian soccer’s bigotry problem are meaningless.

Lazio has a long history of racism, and that makes it difficult to accept their apologies.

Police have identified 20 people responsible for the stickers and slogans. Thirteen are being investigated, and six of them belong to the Irriducibili.

When the reading and silence was held, some Lazio fans protested by singing songs and doing the Roman salute. (A few Juventus fans also turned their backs and sang the Italian national anthem, and Roma fans drowned out the event by singing chants about their team. All these teams have been punished at some point for their fans being abusive toward minorities.)

The Irriducibili, who didn’t travel for the Bologna game, put out a statement on Facebook in defense of their anti-Semitism. They argued that they are the victims of a league-wide attempt to block their team’s progress:

We are talking about sport; there are jokes and there’s irony. There have been other cases which in our opinion deserve much more attention from newspapers and TV ... We don't distance ourselves from what we've done, we simply wonder why nobody takes our side when we are the victims? ... We think these moves are orientated to block Lazio's growth, as we’re one of the best teams in Serie A.

The reason that Lazio fans were in the Curva Sud to begin with was because Lotito allowed the Lazio ultras to use that area after Lazio were punished with a two-game “home” ban. The ban was a consequence of fans racially abusing two black players when Lazio played Sassuolo.

Lazio had already been banned once that season. Lazio had to play against Zulte Waregem in a closed stadium in their Europa League match because fans racially abused a Sparta Prague player two years ago, when they were last in the Europa League.

In 2013, Lazio were charged four times for racist abuse in the Europa League: against Borussia Monchengladbach, Tottenham twice (Tottenham openly embrace the Jewish identity of their club), and Maribor. Lotito responded to the punishment by saying “We cannot as a club be penalized for the mistakes of a small minority (and) we will lodge an appeal.”

That same year, Lazio played their opening game in Serie A in an empty stadium because the same fans racially abused three Juventus players during the Italian SuperCup.

These aren’t isolated incidents. This type of behavior runs through the club’s history.

And it’s not just Lazio that is welcoming this hateful behavior, but the entire Italian league.

Inter fans were fined $30,000 for racially abusing Marc Zoro. Lazio were fined €50,000 and given a stadium ban for racially abusing Kalidou Koulibaly and fined without a ban for racially abusing Antonio Rüdiger. After the referee paused the match as Koulibaly was being taunted, then-Lazio manager Stefano Pioli said: “I would not have stopped the match as that only lends importance to a minority of fans”

Atalanta fans were fined $55,000 for racially abusing Kevin Constant and Nigel de Jong. Their Curva Nord was ordered to be closed for one match, but that sentence was suspended.

Roma were fined $65,000 when their fans racially abused Mario Balotelli. Juventus were forced to play in an empty stadium after their fans racially taunted Balotelli. No one was punished when Fiorentina fans racially abused Balotelli as he boarded a bus.

Cagliari was also not punished for their fans abusing Sulley Muntari. Muntari left the field in response to the abuse, after being booked by the referee for complaining about the racist chanting. Serie A’s disciplinary committee defended its inaction against Cagliari, writing:

Considering that the in-any-case deplorable racial discriminatory chants were only heard due to the fact that the fans were participating at the time in a silent protest, and that these were made by a total number of around 10 supporters, which is therefore less than one percent of the number occupying that sector of the ground (approximately 2,000), there are no grounds to punish this behaviour.

The strongest punishments in recent memory against bigotry in Italian soccer both happened after the incidents gained international attention. Six Pro Patria fans were arrested and sentenced to jail time for abusing Kevin-Prince Boateng. And two Roma fans were jailed for being part of a 50-men horde that attacked Tottenham fans before their Europa League game against Lazio in 2012.

The excuse that Italian soccer officials usually fall back on for their lack of real punishments for bigotry is that the problems are caused by a “small” minority of fans.

Unless it gains international attention, bigotry in Italian soccer is barely ever punished. Part of that may be because those in charge of the league are guilty of the same behavior themselves.

Carlo Tavecchio, the president of the FIGC, was banned for six months by FIFA and UEFA for making racist comments before being elected. In complaining about the lack of opportunities for young Italian players in the youth system, he said:

In England, they identify the players coming in and, if they are professional, they are allowed to play. Here instead we get ‘Opti Poba’, who previously ate bananas and then suddenly becomes a first-team player with Lazio.

A year later, in discussing the sale of an amateur team’s headquarters, he said that the sale was “bought by that lousy Jew Anticoli.” Lotito is one of Tavecchio’s biggest supporters.

In 2015, Arrigo Sacchi, a legendary Italian manager, also lamented the lack of opportunities for young Italian players by saying: “...but to see so many colored players, to see so many foreigners, is an insult to Italian soccer.”

It’s hard to believe that Italian soccer is sympathetic to the victims of the abuse when they have been guilty of it themselves. It’s hard to believe that Lotito was sincere in gifting the wreath, when he helped the Lazio fans subvert their ban for racial abuse.

If we’re to play the fool and assume that Italian officials do care — that the fines and stadium bans are a real effort to tackle the issues — then the solution for the problem is clear. Italy should treat fans responsible for racist and anti-Semitic abuse the same as any other violent individual — as Spain has started to do and as England does to violent fans.

Racist fans should be banned for life.

There is no middle ground to hate. To dismiss the recurring bigotry as caused by a small group of fans is also to indict the larger group of inaction. It’s to prove that those around them, the other fans, the clubs, the league, and those in charge of the league are comfortable with an environment that harbors bigotry. The Lazio ultras do what they do because they know that Lotito won’t take meaningful action against them. This is the same with all the other abusive groups of fans.

As long as these violent fans exist, Italian soccer’s reputation as a bedrock for racism, anti-Semitism, and general hooliganism is well deserved. If the powers that be are serious about changing this stereotype, they need to purge the league of these supposed small groups of fans. A precedent needs to be set that hate is not welcome.

It’s a farfetched idea to think that any real action will be taken to curb the violence of Italian soccer fans because there has never been any indication that Italian soccer cares enough to do so.

What they’re more concerned with is putting on an act when the whole world is watching. Once everyone forgets this most recent incident, things will return to normal. Fans will practice their hate in comfort, and the league will fine them an inconsequential amount to make it seem as if it has taken action. And nothing will change.