What does Nelson Mandela and football have in common? Each have found a way to bond the masses, to make the minority and the majority equal and to give each admirer - of the person and the game - a reason to hope. And while the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s impact cannot be downplayed to a game of kick-about, there is plenty left in his legacy that can still impact today’s modern game.
Most importantly, it needs to be brought back to Italian football where racism has haunted the game in recent years. Sadly, this is even in an era where the peninsula has acquired ‘non-white’ players to represent the national team such as Mario Balotelli and Angelo Ogbonna.
“Sport has the power to change the world, to unite people. It speaks a language that everybody understands,” said the former President of South Africa on the beautiful game.
One needn’t have to look far back to recall the disheartening examples of racism in Italian football. Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng took matters into his own hands when he, along with his teammates, stormed off the field in protest after falling victim to racial abuse by fourth division side Pro Patria in a friendly match in January 2013.
“We are disappointed and saddened by what has happened. Milan play for the right to respect all players. We need to stop these uncivilized gestures. I hope it can be an important signal,” Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri told reporters after the incident.
Most of the 2012-13 season was also punctuated by repeated outbursts of racism and it was the Rossonero side who suffered the brunt of it, with a handful of African players on their books, along with fellow black players M’Baye Niang and Urby Emanuelson.
Similarly, another racism flashpoint rocked the country during Milan’s Coppa Italia clash to Sassuolo just six months after the issue involving Boateng, when Guinea’s Kevin Constant stormed into the tunnel at the Mapei in protest of the crowds condemning behaviour.
But the unacceptable behaviour by the Italian fans stretches back to 2005 even and, in particular, a match between Messina and Inter. Marco Zoro, a former Ivorian international, garnered interest when he attempted leave the field with the ball, after being tormented by racist hecklings from some of the opposing supporters.
“I was treated badly and can't have that. Away from home they can do what they want, I'm used to that, but not at my home ground,” Zoro said upon being asked about the Inter supporters shouting monkey chants whenever he touched the ball. “These are people who don't love this game but they need to learn that we aren't animals and I want some respect.”
As a result of the incident, unanimous condemnations by the whole football community within Italy acted on it by instilling a five-minute delay prior to the kick-offs of the following week’s games as a stance for anti-racism.
Four weeks ago, not only did the African continent lose one of its most respected, revered and beloved figures, but so too did the whole world. Mandela was an individual who transgressed race, colour, religion and nationality, and what we fought for in his homeland was not only restricted to South Africa- it went beyond boarders.
For him, while stuck as a prisoner of a misguided mindset on Robben Island, football was his silver lining to a life of equality and discarded oppression.
“While we were on Robben Island, the only access to a FIFA World Cup would have been through a radio. Football offered the only joyful relief to prisoners. Through football, we can celebrate the humanity of the Southern tip of the African continent and share it with the rest of the continent world,” Madiba once commented.
Since its induction, football has been a symbol of hope for the kids in the slums and in the streets. It was able to look beyond the colour of one’s skin and unite people of any race and upbringing to experience pure joy.
Football doesn’t know racism. It knows the openness of the green grass and that, along with Mandela’s legacy, is something Italian football needs to learn from.