The beginning of 2013 has unfortunately seen a quick return to the issue of racism in football.
In October, the England under-21 team were on the receiving end of abuse from Serbian fans. Now less than three months later the focus has switched to Italy.
But this time the matter was resolved in a more direct way.
Instead of waiting for punishment from above, AC Milan player Kevin-Prince Boateng took matters into his own hands by walking off the pitch during a friendly with Pro Patria on Thursday after hearing racist abuse. Boateng was followed off the field by his team who showed a united front against taunts aimed at their black players.
The Ghanaian has been widely supported for his decision in a country where racist abuse still blights the game.
“I’m surprised we’re still hearing these things in 2013. It’s not the first time in my life I’ve had to hear or see things like this but I’m 25 and don’t want to take this any more”
AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi backed his players and pledged on Friday that his team would walk off the pitch again.
Boateng has won many plaudits for taking a strong stance, although some, including former Milan players Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf, questioned his approach.
“Walking away? Yes, you send a signal. But this has happened more than once and I don’t think it really changes all that much. We are just empowering that little group with their behaviour to make this mess,” Seedorf told the BBC.
Berlusconi, however, said he would back his team if they walked off the pitch again whether in domestic or continental matches, calling the scenes at fourth-tier Pro Patria, who are based in Busto Arsizio, near Milan, ‘disgraceful’.
“I can assure you that in every game, including international (European), if we experience episodes of this nature we will, as a rule, leave the pitch,” Berlusconi said, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.
Boateng said he would have no hesitation in walking off the pitch again if he suffered similar abuse in the future. He is also considering his future in Italian football.
“I don’t care what game it is – a friendly, Serie A or Champions League match, I’d walk off the pitch again and I think everyone would support me,” Boateng told CNN.
“I’m surprised we’re still hearing these things in 2013. It’s not the first time in my life I’ve had to hear or see things like this but I’m 25 and don’t want to take this any more.”
Footballers and sports commentators said Boateng’s protest had highlighted a problem that has been tolerated for too long in Italian stadiums and which continues to dog some parts of the European game.
Damiano Tommasi, head of the Italian footballers’ union Assocalciatori, told La Repubblica: “It’s a strong, important signal that finally sets a precedent.
“It’s good that it comes from first-rate players, who are usually accused of being less sensitive or less willing to make a stand.”
“It was brave of Kevin-Prince Boateng to do what he did and it was the right thing. We need to stand up and stand together. Well done”
Italian football federation (FIGC) president Giancarlo Abete said efforts were being made to identify the perpetrators, adding: “No matter what sanctions are imposed, nothing can cancel the disdain for such an intolerable episode.
“My complete backing goes to the players who were victims of racist chants and to Milan, who refused to continue playing – a decision that was shared by the referee, who had already suspended the match twice.”
National team coach Cesare Prandelli, in charge when striker Mario Balotelli was racially abused by Croatia fans during last year’s European championships, added: “Italy has to grow up and this is a first step.”
Abete meanwhile said he had requested a meeting with Italy’s chief of police to discuss when referees can suspend matches.
Anti-racism groups applauded Boateng, as did players including Senegal-born former France midfielder Patrick Vieira, who last year urged the football authorities to adopt a zero-tolerance approach in the fight to rid the sport of racism.
He said on Twitter: “It was brave of Kevin-Prince Boateng to do what he did and it was the right thing. We need to stand up and stand together. Well done.”