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The Star: Racism on soccer's front burner


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Racism on soccer's front burner



Paolo Di Canio, current Lazio striker and former Lazio ultra, ought to keep his hands to himself.

Cameras caught Di Canio giving his club's thug contingent a stiff-armed salute following a victory over Roma a month ago. That "Sieg Heil" has helped force racism back on to soccer's front burner.

At first, Di Canio denied making the gesture. Then he blamed the cameraman. Then he acknowledged the salute, but denied it was "political behaviour."

Di Canio has admitted a past life as an ultra — a violent hooligan. He called fascist dictator Benito Mussolini "basically a very principled, ethical individual" in his autobiography.

Now we understand why former Italy coach Giovanni Trapattoni, when asked if he would ever include Di Canio on the national team, replied, "Only if there's an outbreak of the bubonic plague."

Of course, the gesture was political. It hailed none too subtly back to the days when Mussolini was Lazio's biggest fan. That's disturbing enough.

More disturbing is Di Canio's impression that this sort of thing could be shrugged off.

Does that mean racism is creeping back into soccer? It never really left, but it had been driven to the lunatic fringe through most of Western Europe. Now a string of unsettling incidents has brought the issue front and centre.

Last November, a partisan crowd in the Santiago Bernabeu stadium showered racist slurs on black England players. Following the disastrous match, Spanish authorities would rightly have been expected to begin mending their ways. Days later, they showed their mettle by slapping a paltry $968 (Canadian) fine on Atletico Madrid after their fans racially abused Real Madrid fullback Roberto Carlos.

The problem in Spain evidently reaches as high as national team coach Luis Aragones. During a practice session, Aragones was caught referring to French striker Thierry Henry as a "black s---."

Like Di Canio, Aragones seemed confused by the subsequent uproar.

Handed a platform, Henry has struck back. Underwritten by Nike, his "Stand Up Speak Up" campaign includes TV ads and 2.5 million black-and-white wristbands to be distributed to fans.

Manchester United and Arsenal players used the logo during Tuesday's fractious thriller at Highbury. All the subsequent violence occurred on the pitch, rather than in the stands, as English fans prefer it these days.

The day Henry launched "Stand Up Speak Up," England's FA premiered a DVD entitled The Pride of a Nation. It highlighted 17 national team players past and present, all of them white. Current black players, understandably a little fragile at this point, took offence. The FA quickly scrapped the DVD.

Activists praised the decision, but one crucial voice spoke out against it.

John Barnes, the Liverpool winger most likely to top anyone's list of England's greatest black players, called it "political correctness gone mad."

It's hard to argue race with Barnes. Few players faced more racial abuse over their careers. But he's earned the right to be a contrarian. Given the climate, the FA must plot the course of least offence.

Like England, Germany and Holland, Italian soccer still suffers from a hooligan culture that draws its symbols and language from fascism.

So watching all of mainstream Italy round on Di Canio gives one hope.

In fact, his only notable supporter was Alessandra Mussolini, a far-right politician and Mussolini's granddaughter.

"How nice that Roman salute was. It delighted me so much," she said. "I shall write him a thank-you note."

I suppose that's what passes for racial etiquette in some circles.


This is the debut column of Cathal Kelly, who will write each Thursday about the world of soccer.

Additional articles by Cathal Kelly

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