Do you want to find racism from football fans? Do you want to find racism from football fans in Italy specifically? It won’t take you long.
So no need to invent stories on the subject. Claims that Mario Balotelli was reduced to tears after being racially abused in Naples appear dangerous and counter-productive. Misguided and premature. This subject is too important to treat with such a lack of care.
One of the first things I was taught in journalism by the legendary Reg Hayter was ‘fact is sacred, comment is free’.
But standing up to waves of unsubstantiated sewerage on twitter makes one feel like the little Dutch boy of popular folklore, with his finger in the dyke.
One thing is certainly true. Balotelli cried on the bench in Naples shortly after being substituted in his team’s 3-1 defeat. That he looked devastated, with tears streaming down his face is clear.
Within minutes this picture was all over twitter and the internet with damning verdicts on ‘this is what racism has done’, ‘chants in the stadium’, ‘heart bleeds for Balotelli.’
But these claims were not coming from inside the stadium. Lies feeding lies.
As I wasn’t in the stadium I cannot tell you categorically that no-one racially abused Balotelli. But this is what happened in the cold light of the next day…
Napoli issued a statement denying there had been racist chants. Milan didn’t complain about any alleged racism. Balotelli didn’t complain about any racism. And the most convincing explanation of his tears that slowly emerged was frustration at missing a good chance and being substituted.
Milan manager Clarence Seedorf offered this explanation: “What can I say about Balotelli’s tears? They were the tears of a sportsman, Mario is human. These are things that happen many times in football and sport in general. I’d say it was actually beautiful, but I’d prefer to talk about the game,”
But until we hear from the man himself we don’t know exactly what started the tears flowing. It should be mentioned that recent DNA tests had proved he was the father of a little girl in Naples, and that after a legal battle over the tests came to a head he opened up publicly and emotionally about his responsibilities to her. It’s a possible explanation for his upset, but again, speculation isn’t really fair.
Less serious, in fact borderline absurd, is his reported grass allergy as a reason. While I wouldn’t be putting this forward as the reason for streaming tears is it any worse than alleging racist chants without hearing any?
We know Italian football has a serious problem with racism from the stands. Balotelli, some of whose performances for Italy make him a national hero to many, has been targeted before. The Italian Football Federation fined Roma under $70,000 dollars for racist abuse last year, a punishment FIFA President Sepp Blatter described as ‘unacceptable’. City rivals Lazio have been charged and punished by the IFF and UEFA this season for racist incidents involving the club’s fans.
And the Rome clubs are far from being the only offenders, just as Italy isn’t the only country affected. Prominently, Spain has faced problems, but then so have many countries across Europe, particularly in the east.
I’ll never believe fines are sufficient, or stadium closures, and wait with interest to see if FIFA’s anti-racism chief Jeffrey Webb can fulfil his promise to get tough on offenders, with points deductions part of the punishment structure. I’ve no doubt he means it, and have said before that Blatter is now committed to this to, a far cry from his racism faux pax in an Al Jazeera interview in 2011.
I ask for your understanding in returning to this topic regularly and hope you agree there is still a huge amount that need to be done to address racism in football. Yes it’s society’s problem, but football authorities have no excuse to leave it untackled.
And I also feel the need to keep questioning twitter and social media.
Twitter can be a force for good, such as helping to spread awareness of the fate of Al Jazeera journalists and crew wrongly imprisoned in an Egyptian jail for doing their jobs. (#freeajstaff)
But too often it is a menace. There are no wise old editors to stop those typing before they think. Spreading rubbish, spreading poison.
I hope Mario Balotelli has a smile back on his face and has a good World Cup in Brazil.
As for those who seized on his tears too quickly and invented their own story: I hope they somehow find a way to understand that ‘fact is sacred, comment is free’.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport