Paul Ince is undoubtedly an Inter Milan icon. After a slow start at San Siro, the ever-energetic midfielder was a driving force in the 1996/97 UEFA Cup run to the final and is fondly remembered as a standout talent during the peak of Pazza Inter. So crucial was his presence in the Inter side of the mid 90s that the Italian media once dubbed an Inter side without Ince as Inter sensa Anima; Inter without soul.
Yet when Ince was in the British media last year speaking about his time in Milan, it wasn’t a fond reflection on his two years with the Nerazzurri. It wasn’t a discussion of Inter’s title chances, or rating their acquisition of another English player in Ashley Young; the sort of headlines you’d expect when a former club hero talks to the press about his old side. Instead, the topic was racism. As we stood horrified by the monkey chants and the racist gestures directed at Romelu Lukaku in Inter’s away fixture at Cagliari, Ince told the world in his article for Paddy Power that he did not feel the same shock. Why? Because he too had been targeted by racist football fans in Italy.
Paul Ince arrived at Inter in uncertain times. Whilst the big-figure fee of £7.5 million paid to Manchester United for Ince’s services by Inter suggested resistance to the sale on United’s part, Sir Alex Ferguson had made his thoughts on Ince perfectly clear. Ince was a ‘bottler’, who despite the fans’ doubts would be replaceable.
How should such an unsettled yet gifted signing from abroad be welcomed to a new club and a new country, then? For one individual, a piece of racist graffiti at the San Siro seemed to be the answer.
In the midst of the targeting of Romelu Lukaku at Cagliari many correctly pointed out that the Sardinian club’s supporters were no strangers to racist controversies, having racially abused Juventus’ Moise Kean just months earlier; an incident notable in the history of horrendous responses in Italian football to racism for Leandro Bonucci’s bizarre claim that the blame for this discrimination was ‘50-50’ between Kean and the racists. We’ve also seen in this season and recent campaigns that Lazio, Hellas Verona and Inter ultras have often lived up to their reputations as the traditionally far-right and neo-fascist sections of Italian ultra culture.
But that isn’t to say only Cagliari and a specific group of historically right-leaning ‘big’ clubs in Italy are the ones associated with racism. Ince compared the Lukaku incident to his experience of racism at Cremonese, for example, and how he was booked for sarcastically applauding the racist spectators in Cremona. The mayor of Cremona tried to apologise to Ince in a letter, deflecting the blame by reassuring him ‘that’s not us’.
‘Well, to be fair, it is you,’ Ince reflected last year.
This trope is a constant in discussions of racism, not only in Italy but in nearly every public apology from a football club. ‘That’s not us’. If it isn’t you, how could you let it happen in your name? How could you not heed the warnings? Did the Cremonese ultras or the Cagliari ultras or whoever it may be next time this happens turn racist overnight? Or did you know this was brewing and simply refuse to challenge it or act preemptively?
Lukaku was racially abused at Cagliari 23 years after Ince suffered the same abuse in Cremona. In almost a quarter of a century we have made next to zero progress. Yes there may be more fines handed out, yes Italian football may be more diverse. But the fact remains that a black player in Italy is still not treated as an equal to a white player; whether that be by the ultras, by the media, or even, in the case of Bonucci, by their own teammates.
Until we see more Italian clubs working in cooperation with each other to combat this and taking decisions that will undoubtedly have negative effects for their own supporters, rather than relying on decisions from an unreliable governing body or hiding behind deflections and excuses, change is not going to come at a fast enough rate. In fact, at the rate Italian football is moving forwards now, 23 more years won’t do it.
Once again, I’m asking that anyone who has had the time to read this article uses the same amount of time to do something productive in the fight against racism. Sign a petition, donate to a cause, write to a politician or simply spend some time educating yourself.