The perpetual sporting soap opera of modern football can always serve up a smörgåsbord of big-name signings, dressing room bust-ups and ruthless sackings in the course of a season. The past week has been especially fruitful. Clarence Seedorf’s appointment as head coach of AC Milan, taking over from the embattled Massimiliano Allegri, came as a surprise: though change was clearly needed at the San Siro with the Rossoneri languishing in 11th place in Serie A, Seedorf, with no prior managerial experience and having just ended his playing career with Portuguese side Botafogo, represents a significant gamble.
However, Seedorf’s unexpected promotion to the role has attracted more attention amongst the media, the fans and anyone who follows the game than usual. This increase in interest has nothing to do with the sport itself. In an ideal world, it ought not matter and would not be noteworthy, yet the sad reality is that a managerial appointment such as Seedorf’s is such a rarity in football, even in the 21st Century, that attention is inevitably going to be drawn towards one thing: Clarence Seedorf is black.
Football has always had unsavoury flirtations with racism. In Italy, however, these are more pronounced, less disputed and regrettably more frequent. Dutch player Ruud Gullit – who was playing for AC Milan at the time – complained of being subjected to racial abuse in the 92/93 season, which prompted an act of defiance as players from both Serie A and Serie B brandished banners emblazoned with the slogan No al razzimo! before matches. Though this was arguably the first instance of Italian football’s problems with racism being brought to light internationally, the situation has hardly improved, even to the present day.
Mario Balotelli – who now finds himself under the tutelage of Seedorf at the San Siro – received constant racist taunts as he was playing for Milan’s arch-rivals and stadium cohabitants Internazionale in a game against Juventus in 2009. More recently, Kevin Prince-Boateng left the pitch in protest at the racial abuse directed towards him and his teammates from the crowd, in a friendly match between AC Milan and Pro Patria last year.
Seedorf himself became the victim of racism in a match against Lazio in 2010, for which the club was only 15,000 euros by the Italian football federation (FIGC). Lazio, incidentally, are a club whose connections with fascism and the far-right are well-documented – fascist salutes amongst the ‘ultras’ of its fanbase are not rare at the Stadio Olimpico.
Getting to the root of the problem is complex given the myriad of socioeconomic, political and historical factors that must be considered. According to the 2011 census, around 3% of the British population describe themselves as Black or Black British, whilst the figures taken from the Italian Institute of National Statistics tell us that in 2010 around 650,000 Italian citizens of African origin were living in Italy, approximately 1% of the population. Not a glaring discrepancy. However, the first black player on the England senior side was Viv Anderson in 1978, it wasn’t until 2001 that a black player, the Italo-Somalian Fabio Liverani, represented the Italian national team for the first time.
As of November 2013, 74 black players have appeared for England; just 18 months ago, Balotelli became the first black player to play for Italy at a major tournament.
So a greater emphasis on improving the inclusivity of the national side could be part of the solution to the country’s problems with racism. But the FIGC is not solely responsible. The leniency of the fine handed out by the Federation to Lazio for the racial abuse of Seedorf was shameful, yet the accountability ultimately lies with FIFA.
Far more draconian measures than the pathetic ones currently being used to ‘punish’ clubs for racism need to be authorised by FIFA, and imposed on every league in world football. And while FIFA are at it, it might also be a good idea to reconsider Sepp Blatter’s suitability to the role of its president: the man who claimed that incidents of racial abuse on the football pitch can be resolved with a simple handshake.
Seedorf’s appointment therefore represents a significant chapter in both the history of AC Milan and of race relations in Italian football. It has the potential to pave the way for other black managers to be given the chance to man-age at the highest level; black players frequently represent England but there is a lamentable lack of black managers in the British game.
It may also be the kick up the backside the FIGC desperately needs; greater inclusivity amongst the managers of its premier league competition could prompt greater inclusivity amongst the playing staff of its national side.
While Seedorf’s tenure is still in its embryonic stage, its undoubted significance may prove to be the sign of a brighter future ahead for Italian football