Paddy Agnew’s Notes From Italy: A Mixed Week For Italian Football

Good news and bad news from Italy this week as Napoli defeat Liverpool in the Champions League and Inter’s Belgian striker, Romelu Lukaku was the object of more racist comment.

One is tempted to hope that Napoli’s 2-0 defeat of title holders Liverpool on Tuesday night might represent a European “coming of age”. Present in seven of the last nine Champions League competitions, Napoli have amassed a wealth of European experience.

Yet, that experience has more often than not been a bitter one including: a second round extra time defeat by Chelsea in 2012; a play-off defeat to Athletic Bilbao in 2014; a humiliating 6-2 second round, aggregate drubbing by Real Madrid in 2017; and a narrow loss last year when they finished on the same points as Liverpool in their group but were eliminated on goal difference (Liverpool 9, Napoli 7).

All in all, Napoli were due a Champions League break and, in a game which could have gone either way, they probably got one in the shape of a tie deciding, 82nd minute penalty, converted by Belgian Dries Mertens. A rare defensive error by Dutchman Virgil Van Djik to let in Napoli’s Spanish striker Fernando Llorente for a soft goal in injury time compounded Liverpool misery and Napoli joy.

The sporting Gods may have been on Napoli’s side but there was much to like about this performance in an entertaining, evenly balanced game. As coach Carlo Ancelotti pointed out afterwards:

“At least we’ve started with a win, unlike last season (a 0-0 draw away to Red Star Belgrade)…”

Indeed, it would be nice to think that Napoli have finally come of European age in a competition where, too often in the past, they have lacked real presence and personality. Too early to jump to hard and fast conclusions but at least they are off to a great start.

Which is rather more than coach Antonio Conte can say about his team, Serie A league leaders Inter Milan, held to a 1-1 home draw by Slavia Prague in a game in which their draw came thanks only to a 92 minute goal from Nicola Barella. For long periods of this game, Inter were outplayed by Slavia who looked sharper, fitter and physically more powerful. In truth, the visitors will probably feel that they let the chance to pick up an historic away win at the San Siro slip through their fingers.

Just to think, too, that when the draw for this group was made, Inter probably considered Slavia their most beatable opponent, given that the other two teams in the group are Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund. Back to the drawing board for Conte, who is still in the process of assembling a new look Inter and who also blamed himself for this poor performance, saying:

“We should all be going home tonight really pissed off, nobody can be happy with this draw… We all fared badly tonight, me most of all… maybe I didn’t prepare for this game with the right ‘charge’… However, you cannot expect to turn up here with a magic wand and change everything from one day to the next”

Conte can at least console himself with two thoughts. Firstly, his three second half substitutions – German Valentino Lazaro for the injured Antonio Candreva, Matteo Politano for Argentine Lautaro Martinez and Barella for Croat Marcelo Brozovic – all played a key part in the late Inter revival. Secondly, Conte can more than make amends on his next competitive outing with Inter due to face city cousins AC Milan next Saturday night in the first derby of the season. If Inter can resume winning ways against the cousins, then the disappointment of Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Slavia will seem like a distant memory.

Off the field, too, Italian football has provided mixed news this week for Inter, or rather for the club’s biggest summer signing, Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku, formerly of Anderlecht, Chelsea, Everton and Man United, among others. Newly arrived in Italy this summer, the 26-year-old Belgian must be wondering to himself about the mindset of some Italian fans, and indeed commentators.

In only his second game for Inter, away to Cagliari,  Lukaku, who is black, was subjected to racist abuse as he stepped up to take what turned out to be a matchwinning penalty in a 2-1 victory.   Next day on Instagram, Lukaku aired his frustration, writing:

“Many players in the last month have suffered from racial abuse. I did too yesterday… Ladies and gentlemen it is 2019 and instead of going forward we’re going backwards…”

Lukaku spoke of the “shame” of racial discrimination calling on “football federations all over the world to react strongly on all cases of discrimination”. Well, and here’s the rub, the Italian Federation’s own sports judge ruled on Monday that Cagliari have no case to answer in relation to the monkey chants directed at Lukaku.

The sports judge’s report suggests that, although “cries from individual spectators” were heard as Lukaku prepared to take the penalty, they were not perceived either by the Federation’s own inspectors or by the stadium security as (racially) discriminatory. So, no fine for Cagliari.

Lukaku must just have imagined the racist abuse. As presumably did Juventus midfielder, Frenchman Blaise Matuidi during a Cagliari v Juventus league match in January 2018. As presumably, the abuse directed at another Juve striker, Moise Kean, during the Cagliari v Juventus league match in March of this year, that too was just imagined.

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What was not imaginary, however, was the comment made on local TV channel, Top Calcio 24 (which deals essentially with Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan), by experienced commentator Luciano Passirani last weekend. Offering an enthusiastic appraisal of Lukaku, Passirani said:

“I think that Lukaku is as good a player as Inter could have bought. Right now, I don’t see a better player in Italy in any team, not at Juventus, not at Milan, nor Lazio nor Roma. I really like him as a player because he is so strong, he is a carbon copy of Zapata (of Atalanta). He has something that other players do not have and then he keeps on scoring goals.

“Guys like him lift the whole team. In the one on one situation, he just kills you. If you try to tackle him, you end up on the ground. Either you have ten bananas wrapped around your waist to give him to eat or just give up…”

Within hours of using the banana expression, Passirani had been sacked on air by a member of Top Calcio 24 management who certainly moved with an alacrity, perhaps denied to the Football Federation. This little incident might seem sort of funny, given that Passirani has such an obvious admiration for the player Lukaku but, however, it is clearly not funny. This is a case of common or garden, everyday Italian football racism, even if in this case unwitting and not intentionally harmful. It remains however unacceptable racism. Sometimes, Lukaku and other black players in Italian football must really wonder where they have landed.

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