These should be the best of times for Italian football.
Juventus are on the verge of their second Champions League final in three years, new investors are promising a revival of AC Milan and Inter Milan and Serie A is slowly casting off its reputation for sterile defensive fare.
But it all risks being clouded by reminders of football’s dark ages: racism has returned to haunt the national sport.
Ten days after Ghana midfielder Sulley Muntari walked off in disgust after being racially abused during a match at Cagliari, the fans responsible have not been identified. No action has been taken against the Sardinian club.
Muntari however was penalized, after failing to persuade the referee to suspend the match.
Remonstrating with the fans earned him a first yellow card, walking off, a second and an automatic one-match ban.
An outcry spearheaded by the international players’ union and the UN human rights agency saw the ban overturned on appeal.
Muntari has subsequently sought to highlight his treatment in interviews. He says he was made to “feel like a criminal” and accused the game’s governing bodies of failing to take the race issue seriously.
Scrutiny of Italian football has increased after Juventus’ Moroccan defender Medhi Benatia cut short a TV interview on Saturday after reportedly hearing someone involved in the production describing him in racially derogatory terms.
That incident would appear to reflect racism in Italian society rather than being particular to football.
But according to sociologist and writer Mauro Valeri, Italian football’s racism problem is only partly about sport reflecting the outside world.
“What happened with Muntari is a very important episode. But only because he reacted. Sadly, this kind of thing is all too common,” Valeri told AFP.
“And it is not just Serie A and B. In junior football there have been 80 registered cases of black players being abused in the last two years. Usually by parents of their opponents and almost invariably nothing is done about it.”
The Muntari abuse was one of a string of recent cases of black players being verbally attacked from the stands.
Serie A has sanctions procedures but the criteria for applying them are so specific (such as the whole stadium must be able to hear the abuse), they are hardly ever used.
And when they are, the penalty is suspended so fines only apply in the event of a second offence. “It is just ridiculous,” says Valeri. “The result is racism is never punished.”
Another problem is that although Italy has strong legislation covering racial abuse, the law requires positive identification of the individuals involved, and clubs cannot be held responsible for failing to identify perpetrators.
Valeri says this is partly about clubs’ fear of alienating their most fervent fans, but broader cultural and political questions also shape attitudes in a specifically Italian way.
“Within Italian football there is no anti-racism movement and other anti-racism associations don’t take any interest in football,” says Valeri.
This leaves anyone who takes a stand isolated, as happened to the country’s most prominent black player, Mario Balotelli.
“He had to endure endless abuse but he never had any kind of support in trying to stop it,” said Valeri, noting how reluctant white Italian footballers are to join anti-racism campaigns.
“In Italy anti-racism is not everyone’s battle. If you say you are against racism, you risk people saying maybe you’re a communist.”
Mainstream Italian politicians are reluctant to take a stand for fear of being seen as not appreciating voters’ worries about the arrival of more than half a million mainly African migrants in Italy in the last three years.
“Today, talking about racism means losing votes,” said Valeri.
Within football, suggesting Italy could learn from neighboring countries seems to raise hackles.
“I don’t believe it is just an Italian problem, it’s global,” Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini said ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final tie with Monaco.
“I just hope that as soon as possible we can stop talking about racism and race and only talk about Chiellini, Benatia, Muntari, what they do on the pitch, were they good or not so good.”
Hoping the problem will go away is not enough, says Valeri, who fears the current climate in Italy could see football’s problem spill over.
“Many sociologists talk of the phenomenon of the weekend racist — someone who goes to the stadium and shouts abuse but does not apply the same approach to people he meets during the week.”
“Personally I think that is wrong and what is happening in the stadiums now risks being reproduced outside.
“If it is okay to insult black players inside a stadium, it quickly becomes normal to insult a young guy from Gambia or elsewhere that you meet in the street.”