I may not be the target of racist abuse but football’s struggle is my struggle too
This summer, I had the honour of leading my national team to glory at the European Championship. It feels like a long journey for the Azzurri, and on the road to victory we were often tested. But we learnt from that adversity, and from our mistakes, and those challenges make success taste even sweeter.
Today Italian football faces another challenge: the horrific racism experienced by black players, and players from different ethnic backgrounds in general, in this league. This season we have already seen so many incidents. I feel ashamed as an Italian that my teammates and fellow players have to live through this. I have no idea how they do it. Of course, as a footballer I’ve had my fair share of heckling from the stands. Sometimes it was tough to stay focused, to manage my emotions. But I have never experienced abuse for something that is part of me, such as my skin colour, gender or sexuality. I can never understand what that feels like, but I know it is unacceptable. And it has to stop.
Take the game on 3 October between Napoli and Fiorentina. During a post-match interview, Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly was called a racist name by a Fiorentina fan after a game in which his teammates André-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Victor Osimhen were racially abused. The fan that abused Koulibaly was banned for five years, and the police and the club are actively searching for other perpetrators. But is this enough?
I was asked after that game for my opinion and I said honestly that I don’t know exactly what needs to be done, but that I know we need to do more. I also said that it is everyone’s responsibility to act, and I recognise that includes me.
Since that interview I have been reflecting on what I can do as someone who has not experienced discrimination but who has a voice, has a platform and has a responsibility. I realise this is an ongoing process for me, but here is my starting point – five things I can do to join the fight against discrimination:
Understand this struggle is my struggle
I may not be the target of discriminatory abuse but as captain of Juventus, as captain of my national team, and as a human being, this fight against discrimination is also my struggle and my responsibility.
I do not have all the answers, but I can listen and learn. I acknowledge that I need to put in that work myself rather than put the onus on people facing discrimination to educate me.
Amplify the voice of others
I will not be silent, but I will also not speak on behalf of those who live with discrimination every day. Instead I will amplify the voices of others, and I’ll start here by highlighting what Koulibaly and Osimhen said after Napoli’s game against Fiorentina: Koulibaly posted on Instagram that fans who racially abuse players “need to be identified and kept out of the stadiums – forever.” Victor took to Twitter after the match to urge people to discuss racism. I ask that you listen to these players and all those who have the courage to speak about their experiences.
Try my best, even if that feels uncomfortable
As a player I have learnt that when we face great challenges, we may make mistakes along the way. But that does not mean we give up or do not try. The most important thing is that when we are wrong, we take responsibility to improve. Being a good ally is like being a good teammate: I may not always get it right, and sometimes it will feel uncomfortable when I’m asked to do something different. But I will own my mistakes, and learn, and do better.
Understand this conversation is not about me
I feel pain when I see my teammates and fellow players abused. And I feel shame as an Italian. I am embarrassed that the world is watching and sees the worst of my country when there is so much to love. But I also acknowledge that I have to manage my feelings myself, because I am not the victim and this conversation is not about me.
This is what we can do as players. Of course our federations, leagues and clubs also need to get together, in consultation with players and player unions, and develop a more effective strategy. We need officials and governing bodies to take the issue seriously, and to react swiftly and appropriately to any incident on the pitch, in the dressing room or online. And I will continue to raise my voice to encourage others to act.
But we all share the responsibility for solving the problems that racism and discrimination present. Too often I have seen the expectation to tackle racism placed on the shoulders of those most affected. Or seen sexism and homophobia brushed off as a problem that only women and people from the LGBT community can address. This cannot be right.
That is why those of us who do not directly experience discrimination must stand up and be better allies. That is why I pledge my voice and my support to all players who experience discrimination. I pledge to take responsibility to act against discrimination, to understand how we can better eradicate it, and to speak out against it. If you are lucky enough not to have experienced discrimination, I ask that you do the same.
This is an extract from a new Fifpro report, ‘What equal playing field? Players perspectives on discrimination in football’