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Italy, you have a problem with racism

From captain Chiellini to the FIGC: the storm that has shaken up the Azzurri at Euro 2020.

by Alessandra Puglisi

Photo credit to Biser Todorov via Creative Commons

Picture this: twenty-two players ready to fight on a football field for the most important European competition. Sixteen players kneeling. In one of the two teams, only five people out of eleven take the knee. More than half of the squad remains on their feet. Except there is no need to imagine it because it happened on Sunday the 20th of June at Stadio Olimpico in Rome before the game between Italy and Wales.

The symbolic gesture against racism has become an important feature in sports to send a powerful message and to show support to the Black Lives Matter movement. However, the gesture seems to have caused strife amongst football fans, and even teams, with some players deciding to kneel while others stand up. The most common critique of the gesture is that it represents a specific political view and that politics should be separated from sports, as well as criticising the message as pure tokenism without bringing meaningful changes to the on-going battle against racism.

What happened with the Italian team on Sunday sparked a big controversy to which defender Leonardo Bonucci replied that the team would have had a meeting to make a final decision on whether to kneel or not during the following game against Austria. Despite the declaration from David Alaba, captain of Austria, that the team would take the knee in the next game, Italy’s captain Giorgio Chiellini declared that his team would not. Interviewed a few minutes before the match, Chiellini said: “I don’t think there has been any request. When there will be a request then we will kneel to show solidarity to the opponents, not for the campaign itself which we don’t share. We will fight racism in other ways.” (as reported on La Repubblica)

If on the one hand, it might be admirable that Italy’s team and the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) are committed to fighting racism with other initiatives outside the field, — as they claim — there are many wrong things in Chiellini’s words which beg further clarification on the Azzurri’s position. If the team truly does not share the values of the BLM campaign, what brought Andrea Belotti, Matteo Pessina, Emerson Palmieri, Rafael Toloi, and Federico Bernardeschi to kneel in the game against Wales? Moreover, arguing that an anti-racist gesture must first be requested from the opponents only highlights the confusion that truly reigns amongst the Italian team on the matter.

Furthermore, the idea that a symbol might not have its own weight and carry a powerful message, as suggested by Chiellini’s words, is deeply incorrect. Football — as many other sports — is rich of symbolic gestures (e.g. sharing a minute of silence to pay respect for someone’s death, or the rainbow armband worn by some teams’ captains).

The assumption that the kneeling cannot contribute to the fight against racism in its own way is simply false, especially when there is the chance to set an example for the whole country while — virtually — the whole world is watching.

Supporting the opponents if they make a request for kneeling emphasizes that the Azzurri have not fully understood the importance and the meaning behind the gesture and the BLM movement itself. In a sport like football, tightly woven to the Italian culture and followed closely by millions of people in the country, the National Team could have used the visibility and platform given to them to show that Italy is truly committed to fighting racism.

The situation is further complicated by FIGC’s position on the matter. The Federcalcio, in fact, has communicated that while they are firmly against any form of racism and discrimination, it is up to the players to decide what to do and how to expose themselves as a team in regards to events like the support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Similar thoughts were expressed by Italy’s head-coach Roberto Mancini, who said that the most important thing for him is the freedom for the players to make up their mind on the matter without any external imposition.

However, these declarations do not improve Italy’s position–if anything, they show a hypocritical attitude from the FIGC and the desire to sweep the situation under the rug as soon as possible. The critiques from the broader public did not wait long to arrive. A lot of fans have been disappointed by the Azzurri’s lack of support for the BLM campaign and former Prime Minister of Italy, Enrico Letta, admitted: “Watching on Sunday, with all the Wales players kneeling and only five of the Italian players doing it, it was not a good image.”

As the Euro 2020 moves forward, it is impossible to predict if any other declaration from the Italian team or the FIGC will be made. At the moment, Italy has informed that the Azzurri will take the knee against Belgium on Friday in support of the opponents, but the team is still set to take the distance from the BLM movement.


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