“OK, we are all off to see the family’s little black boy.”
Now there’s something you want to hear. This was AC Milan vice president Paulo Berlusconi, younger brother of former prime minster and team owner Silvio Berlusconi, mouthing his approval of Mario Balotelli’s arrival at the San Siro.
The battle against racism is one that we are losing. Badly.
Remember that this is a club official, and a very high-ranking one at that. Older brother Silvio Berlusconi, for all his other significant faults, would’ve probably spent a few minutes gaping at the TV screen as his sibling made a fool of himself.
Now, now, Silvio. Can I call you Silvio? Don’t be so harsh on your 63 year old brother. He only happens to be the publisher of the newspaper Il Giornale, and the head of the investment group Paolo Berlusconi Finanzaria.
It is far too much to expect him to live up to the image of silver-haired wisdom, tact and political acumen that you would generally take for granted from the brother of a three-time Prime Minister. That remark has no bearing on what kind of person he is – he could be a modern day Mother Teresa, for all I care; although the convictions on fraud and corruption do seem to suggest otherwise.
The point being that Berlusconi’s remark is not too far from the common perception, and this isn’t just exclusive to the Italians.
Sir John Hall, former Newcastle United chairman, while a guest on Talksport’s Richard Keys and Andy Gray show, stunned the presenters (and no doubt the listeners of the popular radio show) when he reminisced about his £6 million signing in 1995, Les Ferdinand – “I couldn’t see Les Ferdinand because he stood next to my black Aga”.
Apparently, being a member of that highest order does not teach you to curb your obnoxiousness.
Again, Sir John may not have had any malice in mind when he managed to shame into silence two men who, notwithstanding their delectable commentary, possess a blatant disregard for women getting involved in the modern game.
As was seen when they disgraced themselves in their needless mocking of lines-woman Sian Massey a couple of years ago.
The truth is that these men have just had the misfortune of having their ignorance and preconceived notions broadcast, by virtue of there being a camera at hand at the opportune moment.
In reality, theirs is a malady that is widespread; undetected simply because the masses continue to deny its very presence.
Former England international John Barnes, a man who long held the torch for aspiring black footballers in his country, diagnosed the condition thus “unconscious racism”.
His words, in the aftermath of the whole John Terry-Anton Ferdinand fiasco, are worth a read – “Ninety-nine per cent of us, me included, are unconscious racists, because we have an opinion on someone based on history, what we have seen, and what we’ve seen on television.
“If a man turned up in a turban to manage Liverpool when I was playing for them, I would question him. If a white German, who I’ve never met, turned up to manage Liverpool I’ll question him – but not as much as I would question the man with the turban based on the fact that ‘he’s from India – so what does he know?’
“People say things without realizing. I’ve had this discussion with a lot of old players from Liverpool and they all say, ‘I never called anyone a black this or black that.’ I understand that because people do not even realize they are doing it. If John Terry did it I think he probably would not even remember doing it where a conscious racist would remember.”
And this is where the many battles have been lost, and our prospects of winning the war are looking as bleak as ever. For every time a man sees footballers voice their support of the Lets Kick Racism out of Football campaign, he believes it to mean Luis Suarez abusing Patrice Evra. Or the monkey chants that have followed Mario Balotelli wherever he has gone.
That it lies dormant in all of us is an insinuation that we will not tolerate, and it is in this denial that it has spread, an undetectable noxious gas, clouding the judgement of men who should know better.
It is why Terry actually had the gall to say he was “disappointed” with the FA’s verdict in the Anton Ferdinand matter, and why Suarez infamously refused to shake Evra’s hand on his return from that eight-match ban.
To footballers who have spent their careers hustling the opposition to find the slightest advantage over the opposition while out on the pitch, racist remarks are just another tool of the trade, one that lets them blow off some steam, while also hopefully riling the victim.
Yes, the one at the receiving end is a victim. I recently saw a beautiful video by a guy called Shane Koyczan. Allow me to put forth a few lines that show a genius borne from pain and neglect:
“…I’m not the only kid
Who grew up this way
Surrounded by people who used to say
That rhyme about sticks and stones
As if broken bones
Hurt more than the names we got called
And we got called them all…”
Imagine a ten year old trying to make sense of the big, bad world that makes him ashamed of the very color of his skin. To find that when he goes outside to play the game he loves, the stigma follows him.
Even out there, where all that matters is the pirouette that evades a stern challenge, or a thunderous drive tears the side netting, kids everywhere have to face challenges that leave them scarred for life.
What is incomprehensible to me is the sheer irrelevance of it all, at least in this game that we all love so very much. Should the game not be a safe haven for these insecure kids, one where they can find the tools that will help them take on a cruel world?
There may come a day, not too far from today, when an irate Balotelli lashes out against an opponent, or someone in the stands, in a way that will define his career far more than anything he will ever do with a ball at his feet.
And what happens then? Will we just reminisce about the unfortunate hot-head who went a little too far? Or will it take something of that sort to finally being about a change?
In fact, it is only when players like Balotelli and Boateng say that they will walk off the pitch if subjected to racist slurs that the world sits up and takes notice. We need their ilk, because for far too long it has been allowed to sit in the shadows, accepted by even those who are subjected to its torture.
In the end, answer me this – has there been a more beautiful sight in football, than when a joyous Ronaldinho, smiling from ear to ear, wheels away in jubilation after netting another one of those sublime goals? I rest my case, Your Honor.