ROME — A botched anti-racism campaign launch involving a painting of apes. Consistent failures to punish clubs whose fans direct monkey chants at black players. A scathing verbal attack from FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who lambasted Italian soccer authorities for “hiding the truth” about discrimination.
And even public indignation from a Holocaust survivor- turned-Italian senator.
Serie A’s efforts to combat racism inside its stadiums was in shambles little more than a year ago when league CEO Luigi De Siervo decided to take matters into his own hands.
While the big headlines were all about offensive behavior toward the likes of Mario Balotelli, Romelu Lukaku and Kalidou Koulibaly, it was a little-known goalkeeper born in Senegal who caught the attention of De Siervo.
Toward the end of 2019, Omar Daffe walked off the field of a game involving his amateur Agazzanese side when nobody intervened to stop spectators in the Emilia-Romagna town of Bagnolo in Piano from directing offensive chants at him. The match was suspended and Daffe — incomprehensibly — was handed a one-game ban.
“When I heard his story I called him and asked him if he wanted to change jobs and come work for us and start this process,” De Siervo said.
The 39-year-old Daffe was understandably caught off guard when De Siervo offered him the opportunity to take charge of Serie A’s office for anti-discrimination and corporate social responsibility.
“Yes, I was really surprised but then when I spoke with him I understood that he really wants to change things. That’s what convinced me to accept the job,” Daffe told The Associated Press in an interview. “He asked me to bring in my own experience and my own feelings as a player and a person to provide perspective.”
A perspective that helped influence the league’s revised awareness campaign that was rolled out across all Serie A formats last weekend in coordination with the Italian government’s anti-discrimination department.
A video featuring players from all 20 Serie A clubs and all sorts of backgrounds delivering a strong message of inclusion was played before all 10 games. Players wore special patches and — perhaps most notably — the Italian league collaborated with EA Sports to insert a “Keep Racism Out” kit on the FIFA 21 video game so “players from all over the world will be able to get the special uniform and use it for their team.”
“We tried to do it in a manner that involves every level of soccer,” De Siervo said, “so even kids getting into the sport learn how important the fight against discrimination is.”
It may seem strange that the rollout occurred at a time when fans are not permitted to attend matches in Italy because of the coronavirus pandemic. But, as De Siervo noted, the absence of spectators has only put racism into temporary hiding.
“It’s still there,” the CEO said. “The problem of racism is as old as the history of the world. With due respect, neither England nor anyone else has solved it.
“It’s not like there’s less racism in England. But there’s a different level of tolerance, because (different) people have been living together for longer,” De Siervo added. “Italy is a country where mass immigration has really arrived only recently. France has made more progress because it’s a country that is more multi-cultural than ours.”
About three decades ago, immigration was a new phenomenon in Italy, a predominantly white, Catholic nation with a long history of emigration. Today, about 9% of Italy’s 60 million people are foreign nationals, according to the country’s national statistics agency, ISTAT.
Nearly one-fifth of those foreigners come from African countries, like Daffe, who came to Italy when he was 18 and eventually became an Italian citizen.
Still, the perception from abroad is that racism is dealt with too lightly in Italy.
“There’s mistrust toward different people — different meaning ‘foreigners’ or simply someone who’s different,” Daffe said. “Even among Italians, and I’ll put myself in that category because I’m Italian, there’s discrimination between people from other regions. Between the north and the south. We see that in anti-territorial discrimination. There’s work that still needs to be done in that area, too.”
Up next for the league’s anti-discrimination office are meetings with players like Balotelli, Lukaku and Koulibaly who have been the target of racism, while there are already working groups studying how to create more effective sanctions.
“What we really need to do is enable law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition technology to identify the people who are responsible, and not let them inside the stadiums,” De Siervo said. “But that’s still going to take months.
“This is just the start. We’ve got a long way to go.”
AP Global Soccer Writer Rob Harris in London contributed to this report.
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Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf