History was made on Monday. Or at least, a legal precedent of the kind that could in time have massive ramifications around Europe. And perhaps, eventually, change our match-going experience forever.
Sound excessive? Bear with me.
The Italian FA charged Milan for the fact that some of their fans engaged in racist abuse during Sunday night's match against Napoli. In accordance with the regulations, the stand from which the abuse originated (San Siro's Curva Sud) will be shut for one game. (Individual supporters who are identified can also be charged under separate statutes. Had the abuse been reported as more widespread, Milan could have been forced to play behind closed doors. And had it been noted by the official, the game could have been suspended.)
But here’s the thing. Of the 14 Napoli players who played that day, 13 were Caucasian. The other, Juan Camilo Zuniga, is mixed race. And he wasn’t being targeted. In fact, the songs had nothing to do with race as in skin color. They were all about Naples and Neapolitans. And apart from striker Lorenzo Insigne, none of the players were from Naples.
- Report: Milan punished for fan abuse
The song in question talked about Naples being dirty, about Neapolitans not using soap, having cholera and stinking to high heaven. Another chant implored Mount Vesuvius to erupt and clean up Naples, presumably by killing all the Neapolitans.
It's offensive and tasteless, sure. But is it the kind of thing that should be barred from football stadiums?
The Italian FA is not just taking its cue from UEFA's new disciplinary code and specifically Article 14 (PDF), which deals with "racism, discriminatory conduct and propaganda." And in doing so, it's basically acting as a test case for possible future legislation.
Article 14 punishes those who "insult the human dignity of a person or group of persons by whatever means, including on the grounds of skin color, race, religion or ethnic origin." Read it closely and you'll see that while racism, ethnic abuse and sectarian abuse are specifically mentioned, it's actually about insulting the "human dignity" of a group or individual. That can easily include other forms of discriminatory abuse, such as homophobic abuse.
But what they've done in Italy is to specify what constitutes an insult to "human dignity" and, unlike UEFA, they specifically cite (in addition to sexuality) territorial origin.
Think about the implications here. So many of the songs we hear at football matches are insults based on territorial origin. In the Prem, two obvious examples emerge. Liverpool or Everton? "Thieving, cheating scousers." Chelsea? "Rent boys."
It goes on. Sometimes the insults are based on totally fallacious -- but perceived -- local stereotypes. Naples did have a cholera epidemic -- in 1911. Liverpool was a working-class city with a higher-than-average rate of petty crime. As for Chelsea, well, I don't fully get it but I guess it has something to do with the area being affluent and somewhat effete by footballing standards.
The question is whether this is the kind of stuff that football should be stamping out or whether we're simply opening a gigantic can of worms.
(It's ironic that, unless you use the loosest possible interpretation, songs about the Hillsborough tragedy aimed at Liverpool supporters, Heysel at Juventus fans, the Munich air disaster at Manchester United or Superga at Torino don't appear to be punishable. They do insult human dignity -- in my opinion anyway -- but not based on the criteria laid out in Article 14.)
For a long time the stock answer was that abuse based on race, religion or sexuality needed to be treated more seriously because it was predicated on real and pre-existing discrimination or power relations. Some people don't find that a satisfying explanation. Personally, I think it's a pretty good criteria to apply.
But how do you deal with insults between fan bases from nearby cities who loathe each other? Just 33 miles separate Anfield and Old Trafford. They can abuse each other's teams and supporters, but the minute they refer to the actual cities of Liverpool and Manchester in terms of territorial origin, are they crossing some kind of line? Would it be different if, say, Mancunians had a history of economically and culturally subjugating Liverpudlians?
That's just one example. Rivalries and passion have always been part of the game's appeal. At the risk of sounding like somebody's mother, you can be passionate and intense without insulting the opposition. It's just that, well, for many it's a lot less fun that way.
Whether you agree with the ruling, it's clear that the game crossed a line Monday with UEFA's tacit blessing. It may be a step in the right direction or it may not be. But it's a debate worth having. Some will point out that the "match-day experience" is already over-sanitized and over-commercialized at the expense of atmosphere and passion. (Part of me feels that way when I compare it to when I first started going to games at the end of the 1980s.)
Others will suggest that there used to be a time when going to games meant immersing yourself in racism, punch-ups, dope, vomiting and public urination. Now that all that is (largely) gone, are we really that worse off? Are games really less fun for the majority? (Part of me is on board with this too. I miss some of the edginess, though I don't miss the rest.)
This is where the folks who run the game need to think long and hard about what they're doing, how they're going to apply the rules and to what degree they're prepared to make value judgments on what forms of abuse are acceptable and which ones aren't. Because this is only going to work with very clear, hard and fast rules. And once it spreads to UEFA, it’s going to change the climate at games forever.
Above all, it's not something that should be taken lightly. And I'd feel a lot more comfortable about it if we had a much wider debate involving, first and foremost, supporters.