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"In any language, the whole world is united by a ball." --- Steve Amoia, World Football Commentaries

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Just Say Yes to Moise Kean. Just Say No to Ultras.

An essay by Steve Amoia, Publisher of World Football Commentaries

It was an image that reached far beyond the usual sports media constraints of Italian and European football. It was a picture seen in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Australia, respectively. Condemnation came from inside and outside of the football world. Most notably, from Lilian Thuram, a former French international, who played for Juventus. Thuram has a special interest to address and eradicate racism in football. He took aim at Leonardo Bonucci, in particular for his insensitivity, in an interview with Le Parisien:
"He basically says what many people think, 'Black people deserve what happens to them.' It evokes a shared responsibility 50-50 between fans and Kean... Bonucci's reaction is as violent as the cries of a monkey. It's like when a young woman gets raped and some people notice the way she was dressed."
A young Italian, Moise Kean, born in Italy to parents from Côte d'Ivoire, extending his arms in defiance in front of a seething mob in Cagliari, on the usually idyllic isle of Sardinia. But he was deemed as guilty as sin, for doing what needed to be done, ironically by two members of his own team, Juventus F.C.

A Reflection of Italian Society

Sport usually reflects society and mirrors its positive and negative features. That this incident occurred far away from the peninsula of Italy, in an ancient and isolated culture such as Sardinia, spoke volumes. Usually, Sardinia fell outside of the perennial North versus South divide in Italy that has existed even before unification in 1861. The Sardinians weren't seen as Italians and vice versa. They lived on a distant island, spoke their own language, Sardinian, were Italian by passport but perhaps not ever "Italian enough." Unfortunately now, they have joined their mainland brothers in the typical xenophobic, provincial and backwards thinking/behaviors that seems to haunt Italy.

Moise Kean represents a threat to Italy that began a decade ago with the arrival of Mario Balotelli in the national team: First generation sons and daughters of mostly African parents, Italian by birth, but treated as second-class citizens in their own country. Italians of a certain belief system don't like this new Italy. It scares them. There used to be banners in stadiums that read, "A black Italian will never play for the Azzurri." But if one of these sons or daughters, such as Balotelli or Kean, dons the famous blue shirt of Italy in competition against other nations, and scores a goal, they will cheer as long as the day or night is long.

There was an added problem beyond the obvious racist chants that the young man endured for apparently the majority of the match. Kean's own teammate and manager, Leonardo Bonucci and Massimiliano (Max) Allegri, added insult to an already open wound directly after the match had ended in comments transcribed by La Gazzetta dello Sport and Sky Sport, respectively.

Bonucci, a senior member of Juventus F.C., but not its captain, felt that his younger teammate provoked some in La Curva, a place where the hardcore element sit, and for whom is bestowed the lion's share of influence, respect and power for reasons unknown to anyone outside, or perhaps inside of, Italy itself. Kean "provoked" them. Which was a ridiculous explanation that demonstrated zero support for his own teammate and the apparent backing of a rival team's own supporters. Especially in this case when Cagliari's own players of color also heard those monkey chants.

Hypocrisy by Bonucci and Allegri

Bonucci placed "50 percent of the blame" on Kean. And advised his teammate that his first duty was to celebrate a goal with his own teammates. Something that Bonucci earlier in the Sardinian night forgot to do as he sprinted to Juve's away support in a corner of the Sardegna Arena. This was the same Bonucci who asked to leave the Old Lady a year ago to play for bitter rivals AC Milan. Only to return a year later embraced as a prodigal son. And similar to his turnabout from the San Siro, a day after Tuesday night's game, Bonucci issued an Instagram "apology." The usual mea culpa that he was misunderstood by the masses, that he stands firmly against any form of discrimination or racism, but ironically, without one direct reference to Kean by name.

Bonucci's manager, Max Allegri, noted in his press conference on 5 April 2019 before the weekend's fixture with AC Milan that "Bonucci apologized via Instagram." Is Instagram the new conduit instead of the player apologizing directly to his teammate, in front of the entire team, and his manager? Allegri himself deactivated all of his social media accounts a few weeks ago.

Mr. Allegri also believed that his young player needed to learn how to handle situations such as these better. Perhaps such a sentiment would have been better shared in what used to be the sanctity of the changing room. Because in this era of social media, sound bites, and brief quotes, Allegri's comment hardly backed his own player. It gave the impression that it was Kean's fault for the misbehavior of others. Allegri used to be the manager at Cagliari which launched his Serie A coaching career. His statement reminded me of when former players refuse to celebrate a goal in front of their former fans. E tu Max?

Unlike Bonucci, Allegri provided a solution by using video technology to identify "the imbeciles" and banish them for good. In essence, this lot would never be allowed into an Italian ground ever again. In principle, Allegri made a good suggestion. In practicality, he knows that idea has as much of a chance of being implemented as yours truly does to write for La Gazzetta dello Sport or Sports Illustrated, respectively. According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, only three Italian stadiums have the type of camera technology that Allegri alluded to: Allianz Stadium, home of Juventus, and the grounds at Udine, and Reggio Emilia, respectively. But strangely, Allegri does not support halting games when these racist incidents occur. He believes that would punish the majority of fans who do not engage in such vile behavior. This is another example where the minority rules in Italian football.

As of this date, the club, nor its President, Andrea Agnelli, have issued any statement about what Kean endured at the Sardegna Arena.

The Unwritten Power of the Italian Ultras and Their "Curva"

They congregate in hallowed zones, to them at least, "Le Curve," (plural), usually named La Curva Nord or La Curva Sud, directly behind each goal. They wield an unusual amount of power for reasons that have never been fully explained. Players run to them like Usain Bolt in a 100 meter dash to celebrate an individual goal. Or after games, they join hands and approach La Curva en masse to "thank them" after a victory. As if this element had anything to do with winning a game. They stage protests and display banners with messages to club owners who apparently must read and take them to heart. We don't see these banners in other parts of Italian stadia.

I recall a powerful image in 2014 before an Italian Cup final in Rome. Marek Hamsik, the captain of Napoli, was in a boxed cage "negotiating" with a Capo Ultra, or boss, prior to the Cup final. While in full view of the VIP section who sat and did nothing. The powerful imagery portrayed just who held the real power in Italian football, sadly.

The Role of Italian Club Presidents and Italian Authorities

Italian club presidents, Serie A leaders and the Italian Federation are rarely asked why they allow this organized fan element to perpetuate problems that damage their own clubs, league, finances, global brand and TV imagery abroad. Perhaps they have a balance sheet item for "Amortization of Brand Damage by the Ultras."

The majority of Italian club presidents, with the exception of James Pallotta at AS Roma, turn a blind eye to the Ultras. Similar to Cagliari's president, Tommaso Giulini, the other night who heard only whistles, claimed nothing started before Kean's goal, and "They would have done that had Bernardeschi scored... Matuidi was acting like a drama queen..." The latter was a  rude reference to Blaise Matuidi, a World Cup winner with France, who was fervently complaining first to Allegri and then to the match official about the monkey chants. Unfortunately, Blaise suffered a similar type of abuse last season at Cagliari. As of this date, the Serie A has not decided if Cagliari will be fined and/or suffer a stadium ban for their most recent transgressions.

The Ultras have strange relationships with star players. In 2004 during the Roman derby, an Ultra capo had a game suspended only by approaching Roma's icon, Francesco Totti, and saying, "A teenager was killed by a cop outside of Stadio Olimpico." With an implied threat that if the game went on, bedlam would ensue between the rival fans. Without any proof, without any investigation, Totti spoke to his manager, then approached the match official, had a conversation, and the players were sent to an early shower. A day later, it was learned that the whole matter was a hoax.

The power of the Ultras is as eternal as Rome...

The Solution for a Seemingly Never-Ending Problem

My solution for racist chants and other damaging behavior?

Just Say No to the Ultras. 

You may view that as a simplistic thought for a massively complicated issue. Perhaps like Mr. Allegri's remedy that was stated above, a good suggestion without any real meat to it. Or my feeble attempt to alter a famous advertising slogan by Nike: Just Do It.

We need to stop giving Ultras power over law-abiding fans who must suffer the consequences of this element. That is a prime consideration in this entire argument. When you elevate a certain group of fans to mythical levels, they will exercise their power. Why can't Italian authorities recognize this fundamental reality? Why do you continue to allow these groups, along with certain influential leaders within them, to hold you hostage?

Until the most radical elements of Ultra groups are removed, Italian football risks becoming a dinosaur. Players such as Moise Kean will leave and other top players of color will refuse to come.

When certain powerful Ultras no longer sit in Le Curve, I will offer another suggestion: Give tickets away to young underprivileged children and/or their parents who struggle to make a living. Make Le Curve something positive instead of a negative feature.

A Final Word

To Italian football and those who control it at the upper echelon: 

Moise Kean is your future. Not the Ultras. 

But you probably won't recognize that until it is too late.

Follow the English model on hooliganism. They eradicated the scourge on their game over thirty years ago which is why they have a better global product.

--- Steve Amoia, World Football Commentaries

Related Articles

  • "The Chosen One": Moise Kean of Juventus FC and the Azzurri

  • Steve Amoia is a freelance writer and translator based in Washington, D.C. He is the publisher of World Football Commentaries since 2006 and published The Soccer Translator from 2008 to 2015. He has also contributed at AC Cugini Scuola Calcio, Beyond The Pitch, Football Media, Italian Soccer Serie A.com, Keeper Skool, and Soccerlens (Sportslens), respectively.

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