Italian soccer has been making the headlines recently – but for all the wrong reasons.
Rather than celebrating the achievements of Gianluigi Buffon or Giorgio Chiellini, Italian soccer is once again struggling to come to terms with a decades-old antisemitism problem – and the unlikely focus of its resurgence is Anne Frank.
Since Anne Frank’s tragic diary was first published in 1947 and subsequently translated into more than 60 languages, her harrowing story has been at the center of Holocaust education across the world.
Yet instead of Frank serving as a symbol of an innocent and relatable victim of the Holocaust, hardcore “ultra” fans of Rome’s Lazio soccer club plastered an area of their Olimpico Stadium, also home to archrivals AS Roma, with stickers depicting her wearing a Roma shirt – intended as an insult.
Lazio’s ultras only found themselves in the stands generally reserved for their rival’s most committed home fans in October 2017 due to the partial closure of their stadium – a punishment handed down by the Italian soccer league when supporters were found guilty of “chants expressive of racial discrimination” against two black US Sassuolo Calcio players in a previous match.
One of Italy’s most successful teams, Lazio is no stranger to being at the eye of the racism storm. The Anne Frank stickers, however, created a rare public backlash in a sport where antisemitism has become a regular sight on its terraces. On this occasion, senior Italian political and religious leaders as well as national media rushed to condemn the incident.
“Using her image as a sign of insult and threat is, besides being inhumane, alarming for our country, which 80 years ago was infected with the cruelty of antisemitism,” said Italian President Sergio Mattarella.
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said the incident was “unbelievable, unacceptable and not to be minimized.”
The president of Rome’s 20,000-strong Jewish community, Ruth Dureghello, called on Lazio to ban the guilty fans from the stadium.
“This is not a trend, this is not soccer, this is not sport. Antisemites out of the stadium,” Durughello demanded on Twitter.
Italian daily La Repubblica printed a bold front-page headline declaring, “We are all Anne Frank.”
These were strong words, but November’s events only serve to demonstrate the ongoing failure of Italian authorities to combat racism in the stands that has plagued the so-called “beautiful game” for over two decades and the deficiencies in European soccer’s governing body UEFA’s anti-racism “Respect” campaign, launched in 2008.
In 1998, Lazio fans displayed banners reading, “Auschwitz is your homeland, the ovens are your homes” during a match against AS Roma. In 2000, again in a match versus Roma, fans unfurled a sign reading, “Squad of blacks, terrace of Jews.”
Five years later, then-Lazio captain Paolo di Canio was banned for just one game for giving a Nazi salute. Defending his actions, Canio said he was “fascist,” but not “racist.”
EXAMPLES OF racism at Lazio matches are abundant and almost commonplace, with many displays of racism followed by punishment on a national or European level.
Following the latest display of antisemitism and the failure of previous punishments to make a real difference, the Italian Football Association opted for a different response. This time, they focused on education.
Partnering with the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI), Italian teams from across the leagues were ordered to hold a minute’s silence, or a “minute of reflection,” and to read a passage taken from Anne Frank’s diary at their next game.
Copies of Italian-Jewish author Primo Levi’s memoir If This Is a Man, describing his experiences of inhumanity at Auschwitz, were also distributed to captains and referees.
At their next match, away at Bologna, Lazio players took to the field sporting T-shirts featuring Anne Frank’s face. Some Lazio fans boycotted the match in protest, while others attempted to drown out the diary reading by singing “Me ne frego” (“I don’t care”), the Fascist motto popular among Italian soldiers during World War I.
Elsewhere, some Juventus soccer fans in Turin turned their backs on the pitch and, back in the Italian capital, AS Roma fans drowned out the reading with chants.
Lazio president Claudio Lotito attempted to limit the damage caused by the Anne Frank incident by visiting a Rome synagogue and planning to take fans to visit Auschwitz.
These efforts were deeply undermined, however, by a leaked telephone recording in which Lotito described the synagogue visit as “theatrics.”
Hope for change within Italian soccer might have been boosted following the resignation of Italian Football Federation (FIGC) president Carlo Tavecchio in November 2017, following the national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup for the first time in 60 years.
Hardly leading by example in the fight against racism in soccer, Tavecchio was banned by UEFA in 2014 for six months after referring to foreign players “eating bananas.”
Although banned from holding any official European soccer position, the Italian governing body’s internal prosecutor dropped his inquiry into the comments and Tavecchio was permitted to continue leading the national federation.
It seems unlikely that the federation’s newly appointed president, former secretary-general of the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) Roberto Fabbricini, will have to wait long for the issue to resurface.
One group seeking to combat racism in Italy and across Europe is the London-based Fare network, an umbrella organization that monitors all activities of a discriminatory nature in European soccer.
“Italian soccer remains a very complex ground. The efforts of the Italian Football Association have been insufficient to both prevent and sanction incidents of discrimination,” Fare executive director Piara Powar told the Magazine.
“Addressing these implies a clear strategy on education and prevention, closer work with fans, and a consistent approach to sanction incidents of discrimination. At grassroots level, there are many organizations working hard to adapt quickly to the changes in Italy with the arrival of refugees, for example, and to fight discrimination by using soccer as a tool for social inclusion,” he added.
YET ITALIAN soccer authorities are not alone in their so-far underwhelming and largely unsuccessful battle against antisemitism on stadium terraces.
A short 20-minute drive from Anne Frank’s famous secret annex in Amsterdam lies the stadium of the Netherlands’ most successful soccer club, AFC Ajax – or, as some fans like to call themselves, the “Super Jews.”
Prior to World War II, Ajax was the club of choice for many Jewish supporters with the club’s former home, the De Meer Stadium, located in the east of the city, where the majority of Amsterdam’s large Jewish population lived.
Since the war, three Jewish club presidents have managed Ajax off the pitch and a number of Jewish-Dutch soccer players have starred on it, including Netherland internationals Bennie Muller and Sjaak Swart.
However, since the 1970s, rival fans have used Ajax’s Jewish “roots” to taunt fans, chanting “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas,” as well as hissing to mimic the sound of gas chambers and giving Nazi salutes.
Despite most supporters today not being Jewish, such taunts have only motivated the Ajax fan base to strengthen the presence of Jewish and Israeli imagery at their matches.
The F-side, a hooligan group associated with Ajax, call themselves “super Jews,” chant “Jews, Jews” at games and often sport tattoos, clothes and flags featuring the Star of David and the Israeli flag. Founded in 1976, the F-side has become less active in recent years.
Across the North Sea, great strides have been made by British soccer to turn its back on the dark days of violent hooliganism, for which it developed an unwelcome global reputation and fame on the silver screen following its depiction in Green Street Hooligans.
But it is still coming to terms with a stubborn undercurrent of antisemitism that refuses to be defeated, despite a number of high-profile campaigns.
Initiated in 1993, the “Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football” campaign has sought to promote inclusion and equality at all levels of the English game – from Sunday League grassroots soccer to the Premier League. The campaign remains active today.
Images of Anne Frank are absent in the British game, but Holocaust references are often the go-to option for rival fans seeking to abuse London club Tottenham Hotspur and its fans – a team with a strong history of Jewish support.
Supporters of the club proudly refer to themselves as the “Yid army” or “Yiddos,” a word often associated with derogatory connotations that have become the subject of public debate in recent years. For many of Tottenham’s Jewish supporters, their aim has been to reclaim the word. Those supporters subsequently remained defiant despite threats of prosecution and a 2011 campaign against the use of the “Y-word,” led by Jewish comedian David Baddiel and a number of leading current and former English soccer players.
Far from reclaiming the word, the club’s London rivals Chelsea FC have been repeatedly filmed using the term in a less complimentary manner, singing: “Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz, Hitler’s gonna gas ’em again, we can’t stop them, the yids from Tottenham, the yids from White Hart Lane.”
In an initiative seeking to end the ugly display of antisemitism, backed by Chelsea’s Jewish oligarch owner Roman Abramovich (who, incidentally, just moved to Israel), the club launched a “Say No to Antisemitism” campaign in January 2018.
Writing in a special match-day program, Abramovich stated that the campaign represented “the start of an important journey and we all have a part to play.”
Five days after the launch of the campaign, the Chelsea owner will have appreciated not only the importance of the journey but also the size of the task, as the club’s fans were reported to have chanted antisemitic songs during a match against nearby London rivals Watford FC.
EVEN IF the manifestation of antisemitism in European soccer has common features, the Fare network bases its efforts on an understanding that the fight against discrimination must be adapted to differences across the continent.
“It is important to understand the political situation and cultural experiences of each country individually,” Powar told the Magazine.
“The debate is not the same in all countries. The issues to address also differ, as well as the strategies around preventing and sanctioning fans and clubs for discriminatory behavior.
“In England and Germany, for example, the awareness and action in preventing and tackling discrimination in soccer is taken very seriously, whereas in other countries, such as Spain or Italy, there are many incidents that go without being addressed,” he added.
Supporters attending both domestic and international soccer fixtures across Europe in recent years will have seen the emphasis placed on UEFA’s “No to Racism” campaign.
Large anti-racism banners often accompany players onto the pitch, team captains wear campaign armbands and a video featuring Europe’s leading stars backing the campaign is shown inside the stadium prior to kick-off.
The campaign will be familiar to all European soccer fans.
Despite these efforts, anti-racism campaigners may have good reason to be skeptical about a deep, lasting and global commitment to eradicating hate from world soccer.
This week, Russia kicked off the 2018 World Cup at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium with an impressive opening ceremony. The tournament is set to showcase Russian soccer and sporting infrastructure to the world. Not featured in the ceremony was one of the greatest features of Russian soccer today – racism.
In April, less than two months prior to the World Cup’s opening fixture, FIFA charged the World Cup hosts with fan racism after black French players were the target of monkey chants during a friendly match in St. Petersburg in March. The Russian Football Union was later fined $30,000 by FIFA.
The Russian Football Union was also found guilty and fined for racist behavior by its supporters at the last two European Championships, in 2016 and 2012 respectively.
This season alone, fans of Zenit St. Petersburg have twice faced UEFA charges of racism by its fans.
Dismissing concerns of potential racism or violence at this summer’s prestigious tournament, the head coach of the Russian national team Stanislav Cherchesov told Brazil’s Globo TV in March: “I do not think that we have racism on a scale that needs to be fought. Hooligans? I have not seen any serious displays of it.”
Amid criticism of awarding the World Cup to a country with a reputation of fan racism, the Fare network, which reported 89 racist and far-right incidents at Russian soccer games during the 2016-17 season alone, maintains that there is room for optimism going forward.
“Soccer is a tool that can bring to attention and help discuss issues that are of relevance to soccer and the wider society – for example racism in Russia and LGBT rights – but it also a tool that can bring people together and be a starting point to address these issues,” said Powar.
“Today, following criticism and pressure from the public eye, civil society organizations and European bodies, soccer and sport governing bodies are taking these issues more seriously.
“Last year, for example, UEFA and FIFA both adopted new criteria to incorporate and preserve human rights and tackle corruption in the bidding requirements for their upcoming competitions. These are a step to making these more transparent and fair in the future,” he added.
The effectiveness of the World Cup as a tool to tackle racism remains to be seen, with Russian organizers clearly hopeful that existing problems will not be broadcast to a global audience.
As for Anne Frank, let’s hope that her legacy remains true to her diary and far from Europe’s soccer stadiums.