Since its very inception, football has grappled with the intractable problem of how you gauge the quality of a player. Traditional measures such as goals, assists or clean sheets only get you so far. Trophies and medals are as much a reflection of the collective as the individual. Transfer values are conceptual, volatile and subject to all sorts of extrinsic forces. Many clubs employ advanced analytics in an attempt to reach data-driven conclusions. Others argue that the trained eye remains the most reliable judge of talent.
Either way, the issue remains largely unresolved. So perhaps we should be grateful to a group of ultras from Inter Milan’s Curva Nord, who this week unveiled a new and radical solution to the age-old problem of working out how good a player is: by the amount of racist chanting they inspire from opposition fans.
A little background: during Inter’s Serie A game at Cagliari last Sunday, their striker Romelu Lukaku was subjected to loud monkey chants from the home fans as he waited to take a penalty. If this strikes you as a fairly open-and-shut case of racist abuse, then allow the Curva Nord to helpfully disabuse you of your wildly simplistic analysis. Leaping to their defence of their Cagliari counterparts, an Inter fan group explained in a Facebook post this week that the monkey chants aimed at Lukaku were not racist at all, but purely an expression of their deep esteem.
“We understand that it could have seemed racist to you,” the post generously explained. “But it is not like that. You have to understand that in all Italian stadiums people cheer for their teams, but at the same time they cheer against the opponents, not for racism, but to help their own team. Please consider this attitude of Italian fans a form of respect, for the fact they are afraid of you for the goals you might score against their team, and not because they hate you or they are racist.”
There we have it, then: simply a warm tribute to a great player. And it’s intriguing to wonder how football might operate if the Curva Nord’s merit system were adopted more broadly within the game. No longer would the Ballon d’Or need to be decided via the time-consuming process of canvassing votes from players and coaches: instead, simply assemble the leading candidates in front of a crowd, and whoever gets the most banana skins thrown at them wins. Perhaps, ultimately, even team accolades could be decided in the same way. Maybe one day monkey chants, like fourth place in the Premier League, will be deemed equivalent to a trophy.
As for the moral content of the chanting, the statement is unequivocal: any resemblance between making noises at black players and actual racism is purely coincidental. Indeed, there was even a note of chastisement towards Lukaku for undermining the fight against “real racism”, although given the ruthlessly high bar the Curva Nord appears to have set, it’s hard to know exactly what might qualify under that description. Swastikas on his front door? A pogrom? Genocide?
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss these disingenuous ramblings as so much absurdist distraction, particularly from a group of fans with proven links to Italian neo-Nazism, and who have been frequently, virulently and often quite brazenly racist in the recent past. It’s only last season, after all, that Inter were forced to play two games behind closed doors because of racist chanting aimed at Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly. “Rossoneri Ebrei” – “the Rossoneri are Jews” – is a chant frequently heard at Milan derbies. And when the club asked a section of the ultras to take down a banner reading “Adolfo Presente” – “Adolf is still with us” – fans ambitiously denied that they were saluting Hitler, but an entirely different Adolf altogether.
So why, you might argue, should we pay the slightest attention to anything these people have to say? Because, in fact, the Curva Nord statement is quietly and inadvertently revealing: both in terms of the way racists seek to justify themselves, and the motivations for their behaviour in the first place. And this, ultimately, is the crux: if we’re even going to begin combatting racism either in football or wider society, it helps first of all to work out what it is.
It helps, for example, to remember that the vast majority of people who engage in racist behaviour don’t consider themselves racist. This is an obvious but underrated point. One of the more disconcerting traits of public discourse in this fractured digital age is the way the concept of racism has frequently been weaponised and distorted by the reactionary right as a sort of convenient distraction. Even the term ‘racist’ has been reframed in strictly negative terms: a word that carries little intrinsic value, except to define what you’re not. Oh, of course racism exists, these people will argue, it’s just not this. Or that. Or that, either. Or me. And above all, remember the golden rule of right-wing discourse: accusing someone of racism is always far, far worse than racism itself. This is the sour subtext of the Curva Nord’s sinister rebuke to Lukaku, asserting that he “contributes to create a problem that is not really there”.
In short, we need to be a good deal shrewder about this. Simply howling the word “racist” into the hurricane advances the cause of tolerance and diversity not one jot. Simply condemning racial abuse whilst offering only the tritest of solutions is often little more a cynical trawl for likes and retweets. The authorities must do more! We need better education! It’s society’s problem, not just football! This last is a particular favourite of media’s John Barnes, who has built a moderately lucrative career as a handy dial-a-quote simply by telling white people exactly what they want to hear. “Brilliant from John Barnes, the man talks a lot of sense,” your favourite football writer coos approvingly as Barnes points out once again that racism is simply a product of wider social currents, thus neatly absolving anybody of the obligation to do anything at all.
Similarly, any attempt to address racism without acknowledging its many and varied origins is doomed to failure. The far-right hooligan with Nazi-branded crockery in his kitchen cupboard is not the same as the maladjusted teenager in his bedroom tweeting the N-word at Jesse Lingard from multiple burner accounts. The fan whose antisemitism derives from a sinister white-supremacist worldview is not necessarily the same as the fan who sings about the Jews for the sheer thrill of saying something outrageous and will later, in court, explain it away as “harmless banter”. It’s all racism, and it’s all deplorable. But until we recognise the complexity of the threat, we haven’t got a hope of tackling it.
Of course this is a problem that goes beyond football. The increase of racist incidents in football largely mirrors the rise of an emboldened far-right across Europe. Jail sentences for racist abuse in this country are still laughably slight. Social media companies are still wilfully negligent at policing their own platforms, which in the case of much online abuse is the only real defence against the armies of bored, bitter users who will never venture anywhere near a stadium or find their way onto a club mailing list.
But football, which often provides both the mouthpiece and the context for racists to make their voices heard, also needs to get its hands dirty. As the Curva Nord statement admits, “what [fans] do or say to an opposing player of another race is not what they would ever say to someone they would meet in real life”. The task for clubs and governing bodies is to take a lead in working out why this might be the case. Too many clubs are still reactive rather than proactive in extinguishing racist elements among their own support, unwittingly betraying their belief that racism is above all a PR problem. Too many governing bodies are content to restrict their role to cosmetic gestures and clipped press releases, leaving the heavy lifting to outside bodies like Kick it Out.
The media has a role to play, too: partly by championing diversity within its own companies, and partly by addressing racism as an ongoing concern rather than a series of occasional, click-driving news stories. This would serve a dual purpose. Firstly, by recognising the structural and institutional inequities that underpin racism both in football and beyond, and secondly by allowing more space to cover some of the genuine success stories: Chelsea’s commendable work on antisemitism, for example; or the growing links between Bradford City and the local British Asian community.
It’s a mad and malignant world out there, and even this article barely scratches at the surface of the problem. But the wider point is this: racism in football won’t be wished away by outrage alone. It needs to be opposed with surgical precision, on all fronts and in all quarters, with wit and humour as well as po-faced censoriousness. It requires sensitivity and nuance as well as blithe soapbox moralising, dialogue as well as monologue. After all, if you’re going to fight a battle, it helps to understand what you’re fighting.
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