When it comes to racist abuse during football matches, some stuff is simple and easy, some stuff is complicated and hard. Until you figure out the latter, make sure you get the former right.
Here’s the easy bit. Romelu Lukaku was racially abused by a number of spectators on Tuesday night when Juventus hosted Inter in the Coppa Italia semifinal first leg. There is no disputing this. There are videos circulating showing guys encouraging others to make monkey noises. There is Juventus themselves, just a few hours after the fact, vowing to work with the authorities to help identify those “responsible for racist acts” and pledging, regardless of whether they’re legally prosecuted, to ban them from their club. And then doing just that, with one individual getting a lifetime ban (including women’s games, youth games and the training ground) and the other, who is a minor, receiving a 10-year ban.
That’s the simple bit where the focus should be — to make sure we can follow through on what is not in dispute. Beyond that, there’s a ton of context, procedures, regulations, problematic behavior, misunderstanding and sociocultural grandstanding. All of it is worth examining, to varying degrees, because it’s part of the story. But all of it is secondary.
To start, it was the fifth minute of injury time in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal between Juventus and Inter. Inter were a goal down when they were awarded a penalty. Up stepped Lukaku. He got a barrage of abuse and insults from Juve fans behind the goal which, let’s face it, is pretty standard when you’re on the road and when you’re about to attempt to tie the game.
What’s not standard is that amongst that abuse was racist abuse: with references to the color of his skin as well as the noises. Lukaku converted the penalty and celebrated by saluting with his right hand and raising his left index finger to his lips, like a kindergarten teacher shushing her class.
The abuse directed towards him from the Juve fans rose in intensity, both the standard run-of-the-mill insults to which fans are accustomed (and which we’ve come to accept) and the racist bile coming from a minority among them.
Juve players on the pitch rushed to confront Lukaku. They may or may not have heard the racist abuse — some of them are people of color who have experienced racist abuse themselves — but they saw his goal celebration and the way it wound up their fans.
Referee Davide Massa applied the letter of the law. Or, rather, the updated protocol that applies to referees in Italy and calls for a booking if, after a goal (even a disallowed goal) a player reacts in a way that could represent a danger to the crowd (by, say, climbing the fence to celebrate) or removes his shirt or gestures to the crowd in a way intended to provoke them. To Massa, Lukaku’s goal celebration fell in the latter category. And so, he showed the player a yellow card, which, because he’d already been booked, meant he got sent off.
Some 10 days earlier, Lukaku had wheeled out the exact same celebration after scoring for Belgium against Sweden. Nobody saw it as a provocation then.
Did Massa realize Lukaku had been racially abused? If he did, according to the protocol, he should have temporarily suspended the game. Just as he should have temporarily suspended the game if Lukaku had told him he had been racially abused. But, of course, communication post-penalty was rather difficult given the fact there was a full-fledged melee involving both sets of players.
Juventus’ statement is meaningful, too, and offers a glimmer of encouragement, at least at club level, in that they acknowledged there was “racist abuse” even when it wasn’t audible to the majority of the stadium and well before the videos surfaced. They didn’t say they were “collaborating to establish the facts.” They didn’t say “we’ll help the inquiry, but Lukaku needs to stop provoking our supporters.” They owned the moment, which, in the world of Serie A, is a big step forward.
Indeed, it was some four years ago that one of their own black players, Moise Kean, was racially abused after a supposedly provocative goal celebration and his own captain, Leo Bonucci, suggested that Kean ought to share some of the blame for getting racially abused.
And, sure, in the toxic world of conspiracy-driven online fandom, cynics quickly came out of the woodwork accusing Juve of covering their own backside in the Lukaku incident because, under FA regulations, they’re responsible for the behavior of their supporters and risked getting punished themselves.
It didn’t work — that section of the ground will be closed for their next home game — and, in any case, whether self-interest is behind their actions is irrelevant. They took a stand almost immediately. And it was the correct one.
Juve did their part in public, and they followed up in private. The club prides itself on the state-of-the-art surveillance system in its ground, one ordinarily used in counterterrorism activities in airports and the like. If it does what it promises, let’s see it in every football ground.
The rest? It’s not that it’s not important, it’s just that it requires nuance, not knee-jerk reactions.
Start with the celebration. It wouldn’t appear that Lukaku’s gesture was in any way directed at the Juve fans or a response to the racist abuse he received, because he’d done it before in a different game when there was no racist abuse. But if it was a response, it’s logical to tell him: “If you’re racially abused, tell the ref and get him to do his job.”
As for the referee, some discretion would help too. Maybe a quick check with your assistants and, indeed, with Lukaku himself would have helped.
Then there’s the two sets of players, starting with Juve captain Danilo. He’s an intelligent guy who is sensitive on matters of race. Last month, he was part of a Juventus-produced podcast focusing on racism and cultural appropriation. And yet, after the match, it didn’t even seem to cross his mind that Lukaku might have been racially abused.
Danilo said: “Lukaku scored, he tried to shush our fans and he made the referee’s job easy… it’s normal that he’d be booked and because he had already been cautioned he was sent off.” Danilo walked it back somewhat later with a post about his battle against systemic racism, but in the original context it was decidedly tone-deaf.
Or consider how, after the final whistle, Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic and Juve’s Juan Cuadrado came to blows after what started out as a seemingly civil conversation and both were sent off. Two veteran players in their 30s, and here they are arguing over whether Lukaku disrespected supporters.
I get it. Passion. Rivalry. Postmatch fog. But maybe a modicum of professionalism wouldn’t be amiss here, either. If you don’t want your fans in the stands to lose their rag, maybe try to control yourself on the pitch.
Lukaku received messages of solidarity from every corner of the football world, including PSG’s Kylian Mbappe, Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr. and FIFA president Gianni Infantino. That’s encouraging, but we ought to remember that he gets the support because he’s a famous footballer in a high-profile game. The challenge is when it’s a less famous pro in a lower-profile game, away from the cameras. What then?
All of these issues are secondary to the crux of the matter: a person was racially abused by a group of fans. Focus on that and take the right action.