Racism once again overshadowed an otherwise impressive performance and important victory for Hellas Verona on Sunday afternoon.
On Sunday afternoon at the Bentegodi, the Brescia striker Mario Balotelli was singled out throughout the match for relentless goading by the home crowd. Things finally came to a head around 10 minutes into the second half when, clearly provoked, Balotelli launched the ball towards the home Curva. The striker then appeared to walk off, only to be persuaded by his teammates to continue.
After the match, the principal defence offered for the abuse directed at Balotelli was that it wasn’t racist in nature. But even where abuse is not overtly racist (whistling, booing or goading), targeting a person because of the colour of their skin is, it should go without saying, still racist. An alternative mitigation in defence was that those abusing Balotelli weren’t doing so because he is black, but because he is stupid/arrogant/provocative. These defences ring hollow. Whilst it’s impossible to know what motivates those dishing out the abuse, the colour of Balotelli’s skin was undoubtedly a factor.
Emerging from the histrionics of the last couple of days, some tentative signs that things may have reached a head. Stadium bans and stand closures have been declared. The club has also announced a plan to equip stewards with video cameras in order to stamp out racism in the stadium. The shocking sound of monkey chanting (a vile dehumanising act familiar to stadiums across the peninsula) must never again be heard at the Bentegodi.
Whilst these much needed punitive measures may go some way towards changing fan behaviour, attitudinal change will be harder to achieve. Clubs, managers and players must avoid knee jerk reactions to defend their club and city and be prepared to issue clear and unambiguous condemnation of racism. The same, of course, applies to politicians, journalists and commentators, whose responses all too often fall short in the vitriol and acrimony of the moment.
On the field of play, anyone subject to racist abuse should be empowered to walk off the pitch. But the onus to act should not be on the victim (or even his teammates). Instead the decision to suspend a match must be designated to an independent third party.
Of course, it is an inevitable consequence in the aftermath of such incidents that the football itself is overshadowed. And that is a shame, because it was a gripping derby and yet another impressive performance by Hellas. In particular, Eddie Salcedo was outstanding for Verona. Remarkably, his goal was the first by a Hellas striker this season!
Inevitably, it was Balotelli himself who had the final say – a sublime finish with just five minutes remaining on the clock. Scant consolation at the end of a contentious evening in Verona, but somehow fitting that the victim should have the opportunity to momentarily silence the abuser.
For Hellas, an invaluable three points, propelling them into the top half of the table on 15 points.
Next up: Inter at the San Siro on Saturday evening.