Prejudice and hate Italian-style the first big challenge for Ince

Andrew Gumbel in Rome reports on the alarming spread of racism among the tifosi
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The Independent Online
When Paul Ince was in Milan earlier this summer to negotiate his transfer to Internazionale, he was greeted by the appearance of racist graffiti on the walls of the San Siro stadium. With the new Italian league season starting tomorrow, the 27-year-old England midfielder will have to brace himself for more of the same in a country where racism in sport is a relatively new but rapidly growing phenomenon.

Go to an Italian club game these days and there is a good chance you'll see plastic blow-up bananas being waved around in the stands as soon as a black player comes in contact with the ball. On a bad day there will also be jeering, abusive banners and the odd swastika. If the fans from the opposing team are in a really ugly mood, then they might even start chanting "negro di merda, sei solo un negro di merda" (shitty nigger, you're just a shitty nigger) to the salsa beat of Guanta- namera. For black, Jewish and Third World players hoping to make their mark in Europe's most prestigious football arena, it is hardly the welcome they dream of.

The laid-back, non-alarmist explanation touted by many Italian commentators is that fans are a loutish lot by nature but not particularly racist; they merely use any excuse, including ethnic origin, to give players from the opposing team a hard time.

This argument has some merit, since it is true that the racist jibes are generally directed at members of the opposing team only, and often subside as a player makes his name. In the case of a major star like Ruud Gullit, who spent his glory years at Milan, the abuse all but vanishes with time.

But it would be wrong to dismiss the treatment of Ince and others as a simple piece of laddish fun. Racism is without doubt on the increase in Italy as the number of African and east European immigrants rises noticeably, and resentment wells up in young Italians suffering the ill effects of economic crisis.

In the football stands, hostility and violence of all kinds have intensified and are frequently subject to manipulation by far-right political groups. "Racism" in Italy can just as easily imply rivalry between neighbouring cities, or between north and south, as it can to different races per se. In January, the latent aggression spilled over into violence as a gang of rightists from Milan knifed a young Genoa fan to death.

Foreign players have undoubtedly felt the brunt of this sour atmosphere. Some find their performance suffers, while others are scared clean away.

The first, and perhaps most notorious, case involved Ronnie Rosenthal, the Israeli player who has since made his mark with Liverpool and Spurs. In 1989 the northern club Udinese broke a three-year contract with Rosenthal in a matter of weeks with the excuse that he had problems with his spinal cord. In fact, in his short time in Udine, Rosenthal had been the victim of an unparalleled anti-Semitic campaign - graffiti at the club referred to dirty Jews and gas ovens - and the club appeared to lose its nerve.

The most recent victim has been the Colombian Fredy Rincon at Napoli, who says he does not dare walk the streets of Naples. He has been knocked around and told he is good only for picking tomatoes in the fields. Despite high expectations, he has scored only a handful of goals this season.

The racism is not restricted to football. The hurdler and relay-runner Ashraf Saber has just decided to leave Italy for France after being called a "nigger" by a member of his own training team. Last month, the basketball player Piero Coen became the first Italian sportsman to open a racial discrimination suit after a former team-mate at Jesi called him a "dirty Jew".

"We continue to say that Italy is not a racist country," the columnist Gianni Mura has written, "but reports on young people suggest that racism is in fact going up sharply. Perhaps we deny the truth because we want to hold on to what is left of the good old Italy. But the number of violent incidents is increasing, from Verona to Naples, from Cagliari to Rimini."