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Napoli walking off in face of racial abuse wouldn't be a 'defeat for football' -- it would be a victory

Napoli reiterated last week that they fully support coach Carlo Ancelotti and his threat to order his team off the pitch the next time one of their players is racially abused by supporters without adequate action being taken. This comes after Italian Deputy Prime Minister (and Minister of the Interior, therefore the person technically in charge of policing and security) Matteo Salvini said he was against stopping or abandoning matches in instances of racial abuse, because it would amount to "a defeat for football."

I'm not sure what that even means. Is there some metaphysical way that the world's most popular sport can be defeated? Who keeps score? Does football, after accumulating enough defeats, get relegated and have to face fringe sports like jai alai, monster trucks and curling?

If anything, abandoning a match would be a victory for football. It would show that the game and racist abuse can't coexist, that football rejects folks being abused for the color of their skin. Football is a space for passion, competition, tribalism and entertainment as well as, for those who play it professionally, a job. When you have racist abuse, the sport disappears.

Salvini can call that a "defeat," but it smells like V-I-C-T-O-R-Y to me.

Then again, Salvini's backward thinking has been heard in some quarters of Italy years after the Italian FA adopted the "FIFA good practice guide on diversity and anti-discrimination," which calls for a three-step protocol (established before the 2018 World Cup) in instances of racist or discriminatory abuse.

At the first offence, you issue a warning via the stadium PA system. At the second, you suspend the match for a few minutes, and at the third, the game is abandoned. Italy's version is actually more stringent, punishing not just racist, homophobic and sectarian abuse but also "territorial abuse," like insulting another city or region. And it has broadly worked, with incidents of abuse declining sharply in many grounds.

Yet some folks support Salvini's stance and oppose the FIFA protocol. One of the main arguments is that it gives certain supporters leverage to blackmail their own club. Salvini himself says he doesn't want to give the "power of blackmail" to "a minority fringe" (aka the Ultras, the most fanatical fans). This is a familiar complaint from some clubs, who argue that whenever they try to distance themselves from Ultras or curb their excesses, those groups threaten to act up and create problems. "Give us subsidized tickets and travel or fire this coach/executive we don't like or we'll misbehave" is the message.

We've seen this before, in a Champions League quarterfinal in fact. When Inter's Ultras launched dozens of flares against Milan in 2005, it wasn't because they were psychopathic pyros, it was to vent their anger at the club. They knew the club would be punished and suffer a financial loss.

Here though, it's up to the clubs to man up and the Ultras to grow up. For too long too many clubs have been too close to their hardcore fans, feeling that the color, passion and support (which, by the way, TV companies love) was worth the price of associating with some unsavoury characters. As for the Ultras themselves, do they really want to self-identify as a bunch of racists?

Ancelotti and Napoli will be right to walk off the pitch if there is more racial abuse in the future. It's an easy decision, too.
Carlo Ancelotti and Napoli will be right to walk off the pitch if there is more racial abuse in the future. It's an easy decision, too.

The other argument against the protocol is that it's not fair to all the paying customers (both at home and on TV) who have done nothing wrong and are deprived of seeing a football match due to the actions of a minority. But sometimes, the greater good is worth a bit of inconvenience. This is your entertainment, yes, but this is someone's job and they're getting racially abused. Deal with it.

Then there are those who argue that it would be better to punish individuals. Send a S.O.R.T. (Special Operations Response Team), use technology (CCTV and facial recognition) to identify them and ban them. That's the ideal solution, but we're not quite there yet technologically. And, in Italy, where 14 of the 17 Serie A grounds are owned by local government and are public spaces, there is another massive hurdle: a diabolically slow and intricate legal system. Banning someone is simply difficult: it takes tons of evidence and a lot of time. There are also laws governing free speech that sometimes make prosecution difficult and far from automatic.

So yeah, we can wait for the legal system to catch up, for clubs to build their own grounds and for technology to create a "Big Brother" environment where we can catch and punish all the racial abusers. But victims of racist abuse shouldn't have to wait. They should be given that most basic of freedoms -- the freedom to watch or play in a game without hearing racist chants -- right now.

And so the protocol is as good as it gets. If that's not enough, let people like Ancelotti do what they want to combat it.

One more thing on Ancelotti. If he did march his team off the pitch, some would describe him as some kind of hero. But he'd be the first to say he isn't. This isn't 1968, and he's neither John Carlos nor Tommy Smith. He knows he wouldn't be vilified: he'd be celebrated. And if the club backs him, as they promised to do, so would Napoli.

Sometimes doing the right thing is very tough. Sometimes less so.

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