Kicking around with skin colour

Kicking around with skin colour

Italian football federation vice-president Carlo Tavecchio stirs up an ugly row on race

Kicking around with skin colour

If there is one thing, one joy, that Brazil has taught the world over the last half century, it is surely that soccer is a game for all races.

Yet Italy, which shared arguably the most beautiful final in World Cup history — against Brazil in 1970 — appears to be headed back to the dark ages of prejudice.

The goals that defeated Italy in that final 44 years ago were scored by Pelé, Gérson, Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto. No right-minded person could have questioned the mixed ethnic backgrounds of those players.

Now, however, in a knee-jerk response to Italy’s early elimination from the World Cup in Brazil, the leading candidate to head the country’s soccer federation made a public reference to Africans as “banana-eaters.”

Carlo Tavecchio is white. He is 71. And he hopes and expects to move from his position as leader of the country’s amateur leagues into the vacancy atop the Italian Football Federation — the FIGC.

This is what Tavecchio, a former economist and politician with the Christian Democratic party, told an audience of youth and amateur soccer representatives last Friday:
“In England, they identify the players coming in and, if they are professional, they are allowed to play. Here, we say that any old Opti Pobà can come. Before, he was eating bananas, now he’s playing in the Lazio first XI.”

Opti Pobà is not, as some might imagine, the latest Latin star on the market. It is Tavecchio’s term for any random player.

When Tavecchio was questioned by the media about his speech, he suggested: “I can’t remember if I said the word banana, but I was referring to the CV and professionalism required by English football for players who come from Africa and other countries. If anyone has interpreted my speech as offensive, I offer my apologies.”

The apology itself stirs a polemic across Italian politics. “It seems he lost the sense of what he wanted to say, or what effect certain phrases can have on others,” commented the Congo-born Cécile Kyenge, Italy’s former minister of integration.

“Those in positions of power,” Kyenge added, “should remember their role as educator and pay attention to what they’re saying.” And the outrage has simmered from the Italian players’ association to FIFA, which has written to remind the Italian federation that “the fight against racism is a top priority for FIFA.”

Indeed, it is. There is a FIFA presidential election coming next year, and Africa carries a quarter of all the 209 national federations that vote.  Jeffrey Webb, the Cayman Islander who heads Concacaf, the governing body for soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean, has more than enough on his plate trying to clean up FIFA’s own image and Concacaf’s financial mess. But Webb has another onerous task. He also heads the so-called FIFA Antiracism and Discrimination Task Force.

His response to the  Italian debacle, posted on the Concacaf website, was considerably more forthright than the FIFA request for Italy’s headless federation to police itself. “The football community is appalled,” Webb wrote, "by the recent racist comments made by the Italian Football Federation vice-president Carlo Tavecchio a year after FIFA member associations unanimously approved a resolution to fight against racism and discrimination.

“The FIGC and the football family at large deserve exemplary leadership capable of directing the industry in a transparent way for a dignified, diverse and inclusive society.”

By all accounts, Tavecchio expects to shrug off his remarks. The outgoing Italian federation president had followed the national coach, Cesare Prandelli, in resigning after the Azzurri fell after the first round of games in Brazil last month.

Tavecchio, after decades of time serving on youth committees and the Italian federation, is still expected to walk to victory in the election for the Italian federation president on August 11. His only adversary, the former AC Milan midfielder Demetrio Albertini, is seen more as an old player than a committeeman.

Some might think that is exactly what the sport and Italy need. Albertini played for 17 years, in Italy and Spain and knows firsthand that skin color or ethnic background has absolutely nothing to do with the ability, skill or aptitude of human beings sharing a common goal.

He has, as they say, been there and done it. Tavecchio’s crass comment picked out lousy comparisons. England, for example, is no role model except for the financial status of its clubs, largely through foreign ownership. The one victory Italy did enjoy in Brazil was against the English. And England’s excuse was that seven out of every 11 positions in its Premier League are occupied by imported players.

But the Lazio situation that Tavecchio chose to use in his analogy is typical of mainstream European clubs right now. Lazio does have African players. It also employs Albanians, Brazilians, and indeed individuals from 17 different nations among its 38 senior professionals.

Maybe we should blame the Brazilians. Ever since Pelé first emerged, as a fascinating and brilliant 17-year-old at the 1958 World Cup that Brazil won in Sweden, the stupidity of judging a player by the tone of his skin was exposed. Eusébio followed for Portugal in 1966. Many, and countless professionals from just about every country, have gone on to make their fortunes and thrill us wherever the ball takes them.

Tavecchio is old, but that should have opened his eyes to the eclectic, and at its best, beautiful integration that is soccer’s best attribute. Those who vote on August 11 have a very clear message to give.