At first it felt like a trick of the mind: Serie A’s disciplinary committee announced it would ban Pescara midfielder Sulley Muntari for one game for walking out during his side’s 1-0 loss against Cagliari after he was subjected to racist abuse from the home fans.
On Friday, that ban was overturned.
But that fix what happened in the first place, and it doesn’t absolve the Italian FA of its responsibility to fight racism.
By now the story is widespread, but nonetheless a quick recap: Muntari was racially abused by the Cagliari fans right from the first half. He had a word with a few of them early in the match, but called on the referee to halt the game when he thought the abuse got out of hand towards the end of the second half. The referee, Daniele Minelli, did no such thing; instead Muntari was shown a yellow card for complaining, and he left the pitch in the 90th minute.
There's no doubt the referee lacked courage at that moment, possibly fearing a backlash if he had stopped the game. There's no explanation for his actions, but to play devil's advocate for a second: it's easy to understand even if you don't agree with his decision. In the heat of the moment, and when called upon to make a bold decision, Minelli bottled it and chose the safe option.
But the FIGC choosing to ban Muntari despite having enough time to take a considered and nuanced view of the situation is beyond ridiculous and simply unacceptable. To make a terrible situation even worse, Cagliari got away without any punishment, because "an approximate number of only 10" fans were involved, which apparently isn't enough to warrant sanctioning against the club.
When Italian soccer authorities had the chance to combat racism, it chose to stick its head in the sand and punish the victim instead.
This is not the first time Italian soccer has been embroiled in controversy over the treatment of black players; in fact, it is more commonplace than the authorities would have us believe. This past weekend of Serie A action alone was punctuated by three different racist incidents. Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly was targeted by Inter Milan fans during his side's 1-0 win at the San Siro as was the Roma center back Antonio Rüdiger by a section of Lazio's Curva Sud during the Rome derby on Sunday.
As you would expect, both of those clubs got off lightly, with only warnings of partial stadium closure despite this being the second time Rüdiger has suffered abuse from Lazio fans in as many derbies. In the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal in March Rüdiger was repeatedly subjected to racist chanting from Lazio fans during the first half, prompting the stadium announcer to warn that the match would be interrupted if it continued. The chanting died down after that, but how many chances should teams get in Italy before they are punished for abhorrent behavior?
If you thought the sheer volume of racist abuse directed towards players would have provided the authorities ample experience on how to clamp down on this sort of nonsense, you would be severely mistaken.
Italian soccer history is littered with black players getting abuse from the stands and their fellow players, yet the FA merely offers half-hearted punishments to the offenders, and even these instances of vile characters getting their comeuppance are even few and far between. For the most part, the Italian FA seems utterly uninterested in tackling this problem head on.
Take for instance Lazio midfielder Senad Lulic's crude comments about Rüdiger in the aftermath of December's derby, telling reporters "two years ago he [Rüdiger] was selling socks and belts in Stuttgart, now he acts like he’s a phenomenon.” Lulic refused to apologize when put to task over his racism, further digging his own grave by posting on Instagram that he responded to a provocation with "another provocation.” Surely a serious ban should have followed? Not in Italy. Lulic was fined €10,000 and banned for 20 days which conveniently coincided with the winter break in Italy. As it turned out, Lulic missed only one game — a home clash against Crotone.
When Kevin-Prince Boateng led a walkout of three other AC Milan teammates —including Muntari — after they were racially abused during a friendly at Pro Patria in 2013, the player admitted in an interview with the Guardian recently that perhaps walking out wasn’t the best course of action but he thought to himself: "Why do we still have to go through this?"
Boateng has a point. Walking out causes disruptions to games and may be counterproductive but it still feels gutting that players subjected to racial abuse still have to fend for themselves and take action, knowing fully well that those charged with protecting them have neither the will nor the courage to take decisive action against the sport’s bad apples.
With Italy it’s important to question how much moral authority the FA has to discipline the abusers when Carlo Tavecchio, a man suspended for six months by FIFA and UEFA for his racist comments during his campaign for the presidency of the FA in 2014, leads the association itself. It would come as no surprise that the Italian FA’s disciplinary committee cleared him of wrongdoing during its own investigation. Tavecchio has just won a second term in office; Italian soccer’s not-so-subtle way of declaring that in this fight against racism, it lucidly stands with the bad guys.
It’s obvious that Italian soccer does indeed have a racism problem, but there’s a wider issue at play here: one of soccer authorities on a global level decidedly slow in taking concrete steps towards eradicating racism within the game they guard. Racism is a problem society as a whole still grapples with but it’s not too much to ask that soccer authorities keep it out of the sport they safeguard.
This is why FIFA’s decision to disband its anti-racism task force last year still boggles the mind. The written reasons are even more confounding with FIFA stating the task force has "completely fulfilled its temporary mission" and "is hereby dissolved and no longer in operation." With the World Cup heading to Russia where the soccer culture is still virulently racist, it takes a certain amount of cognitive dissonance for the gatekeepers of the game to argue that racism has been solved. Where do soccer authorities stand in the fight between good and evil? With all the evidence we have, the answer is quite clear.
It's all well and good for FIFA and UEFA to spend a truckload of money on “respect” campaigns and ensuring players wear some T-shirt as part of its effort to stamp out racism from its supposedly beautiful game. But all these efforts are superficial at best, just another way of sweeping real issues under the carpet with the blitz of fancy marketing initiatives.
Until soccer authorities are bold enough to make tough calls, like enforcing prolonged stadium bans, points deductions, and imposing heavy fines, there will be no lasting changes. It's not rocket science to know that soccer clubs and their fans are most impacted by the threat of losing money and/or points.
That these measures need to be taken to ensure people act as decent human beings to those who look different to them is shameful in itself but this is what the world has come to. If authorities in charge of the game are unwilling to be bold and swiftly decisive, the racist elements of the game will continue to be emboldened leading inevitably to more walkouts and disruptions.