The clip of Kevin-Prince Boateng kicking the ball into the stands and taking off his shirt to walk away has gone round the globe. Blanket praise arrived for the Ghanaian’s understandable reaction, but that was a midweek friendly against Pro Patria. Can the same be done when three points are at stake in a stadium with 50,000 people? Should football matches be held hostage by a dozen idiots? The fact remains there are no clear rules on this and they need to be formalised.
There were fears of racist abuse during Euro 2012 which, thankfully, did not need to be dealt with. UEFA President Michel Platini had, however, declared that a player would be penalised if he walked off in protest at racist chanting without permission from the referee. Praise Boateng for walking away, but in official matches the matter is still entirely down to the discretion of the officials in Italy, England and Europe. We already saw last month how England’s Under-21 players were penalised just as severely as the Serbians when reacting to racist abuse. The rules are not clear and there is the risk of a reaction to extreme provocation being punished more heavily than the original aggression.
The current Italian system was highlighted when Lazio faced Cagliari on Saturday. Victor Ibarbo was subjected to the sadly typical ‘monkey noises’ from a small section of the home fans. At least the proportion of Lazio ultras engaging in this barbaric behaviour has dropped in recent months, but there are still some who insist on giving everyone a bad name.
As per the procedure – which was also followed in the Pro Patria-Milan game before Boateng walked – the referee spoke to the captains and sent a message over the tannoy system warning that play would be halted if the chants continued. The next step, which thankfully was not needed at the Olimpico, would be to stop play for a few minutes. If they still did not stop, then the referee could in theory suspend the match indefinitely. I say ‘in theory,’ because again this is down to the discretion of each individual official. They are also able to stop play when flares are thrown from the stands, but when does that ever happen?
The officials and players can only do so much. The clubs haven’t much power either, as the stadiums are owned by local councils and so the very few stewards have no real ability to police the stands. If we are to truly stamp out racism in Italian stadiums, we need to get rid of the concept of omertà. This word is used by the Mafia to define those who know about wrong-doing, but do not say anything for fear of reprisals. There is undoubtedly omertàin the stands and that is what we must work on.
Let’s be honest, telling a racist that he is wrong and stupid is probably not going to get you anywhere. Telling those around them that the racists can be identified to stewards and thrown out to be banned from games – that can work. We must give the real fans more power and a feeling they are safe enough to take control of the stands, of their team’s reputation and of their own match-day experience by isolating these rotten apples.