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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Mike Maignan, racist abuse at Udinese and ‘a system that needs to take responsibility’

The gloves came off. Mike Maignan tore at the tape binding them to his wrists and walked down the tunnel at the Bluenergy Stadium. He did not intend to come back out onto the pitch. “I no longer wanted to play,” Maignan said.

He has played in Italy for two and a half seasons. Every year, he gets racially abused. In Sardinia, in Turin and, on Saturday night, in Udine. Not for the first time, the unmistakable sound of monkey chants came from behind his goal.

“They were aimed at me and other players,” AC Milan goalkeeper Maignan said.

He called over the fourth official, who in turn sent across referee Fabio Maresca to report the racist abuse. Maresca acted, in his own opinion, “like a big brother” to Maignan. He listened and followed the protocol laid out in the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) rulebook. He briefed his officiating team and they notified representatives from the local police in attendance.

A message was read out over the public address system, instructing those responsible to cease the racist abuse. But the perpetrators ignored it. When Maignan next went to retrieve the ball from behind his goal, he was racially abused again. Tossing the ball to his team-mate Matteo Gabbia, he signalled for the centre-back to take the goal kick instead. Gabbia thought about it before realising what was happening.

His ’keeper was no longer in goal. He was walking off in anger and disgust.

“I was angry, not disappointed,” Maignan said.

How could the racism come as a disappointment? This is not a one-off.

As Maignan got to the sideline, his team-mates (wearing Milan’s third jersey, the design of which figures as part of the club’s efforts to promote inclusivity) rushed to support him. Noah Okafor, one of the substitutes, pulled Maignan in close and vowed to score for him if coach Stefano Pioli put him on.

The Switzerland international later got a dramatic 93rd-minute winner in a 3-2 comeback that would ordinarily have been the headline. It was Milan’s fifth win in six league games and the 100th Serie A victory of Pioli’s time at the club, putting him in exclusive company with all-time greats Carlo Ancelotti, Nereo Rocco, Fabio Capello and Nils Liedholm.

But the statistics were secondary to the solidarity shown with Maignan.

Maignan speaks to referee Maresca during Udinese vs Milan (Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)

When the game was suspended, Maignan’s French compatriot Theo Hernandez ordered the visiting team back to the dressing room. In the tunnel, club official Alberto Marangon seemed to motion the players back out, leading to a heated exchange. Maignan only returned “because we’re a family” and “I felt everybody’s support”.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, now an advisor to Milan’s ownership and senior management, told him “to stay strong mentally”. He made the case that “winning the game would be the best response we could give tonight”. So out went Maignan onto the pitch, and the game restarted under threat of abandonment.

There remained an hour on the clock. An hour in which Maignan knew a racist sat behind him.

Winning 1-0 when the match resumed, Milan, still shaken by what had happened, conceded an equaliser a few minutes later. According to the protocol, the game should have ended there and then.

In a video shot in the immediate aftermath of Lazar Samardzic’s strike, a man behind Maignan’s goal repeatedly shouted racist abuse. But the match continued. Milan eventually won 3-2. But it should have been a 3-0 Udinese forfeit. Maignan, whose every touch was whistled for the remainder of the game, should never have had to go through what he did in Udine.

“Today a player wasn’t assaulted. A man was. A father was,” he said. “This isn’t the first time it happens. We have put out press releases, ad campaigns, protocols and nothing has changed. Today, an entire system needs to take responsibility.”

Maignan demanded accountability from “the perpetrators of these crimes because it’s easy to act in the anonymity of a group”, from “the spectators in the stands who saw everything, heard everything but chose to say nothing”, from Udinese, who initially “only spoke about the suspension of the game, as if nothing happened”, and from the authorities because “if they do nothing, you are complicit too”.

Udinese, in fairness, were not slow to react.

Federico Balzaretti, their sporting director, took to the microphone after the game and outlined a zero-tolerance policy. His superior, the general manager Franco Collavino, insisted the club would go beyond a DASPO — a banning order effective for between one and five years — and follow Juventus’ lead in issuing life bans for racism. He claims that, after the game restarted, Udinese began collaborating with law enforcement to identify the perpetrators.

The Bluenergy Stadium is one of only a handful of modern stadiums in Italy. UEFA acknowledged as much by letting it host the final of the Under-21 Euros five years ago. It has 300 cameras, outside and in — far from a given in a country with such antiquated infrastructure. It facilitated the investigation launched by police in Udine.

By Monday evening, a 46-year-old was identified as a perpetrator and Udinese followed up a statement condemning racism with another confirming the man will never set foot in the stadium again. His life ban might not be the last as investigations continue.

The racism shocked Udinese. As often happens, the club on whose watch this happens tends to be defensive. Balzaretti, for instance, called Udinese “the most multicultural club in the world” on the basis that their scouting system has brought players from all over the globe to this small city near the Slovenian border, and because they have thrived as a result of the emphasis placed on integration.

Udinese’s goalkeeper (and part-time video-game designer) Marco Silvestri wrote Maignan a letter of support — “Let’s all speak up: NO TO RACISM” — in which he also defended Udine, like “I’ve defended Udinese’s goal for the past three years”. The city’s mayor, Alberto Felice De Toni, vowed to award Maignan honorary citizenship in a gesture of inclusivity.

While it’s true a club and a city shouldn’t be judged on the actions of one individual, or a few of them, there is no getting away from the fact Maignan suffered racist abuse at a Udinese game in Udine and, as much as Italian football has been quick to condemn, reaction is by its very nature reactive.

Gabriele Cioffi, the Udinese coach, can perhaps be excused for his decision to talk only about the football after the game, on the grounds senior management had already addressed the racism Maignan experienced. But he could have followed the example of Ancelotti, who refused to take any questions about the football when Vinicius Junior suffered racist abuse during Real Madrid’s game against Valencia at the end of last season. Ancelotti felt it more important to address the racism.

Serie A’s stakeholders need to confront rather than back away.

The American-owned clubs have tried to challenge racism in football head-on. Milan and Roma jointly condemned a Corriere dello Sport front page which promoted an Inter-Roma game on a Friday in 2019 with pictures of Chris Smalling and Romelu Lukaku under the headline ‘Black Friday’.

Milan’s somewhat clunkily named RespACT manifesto was set up at the initiative of former chief executive Ivan Gazidis to focus on raising awareness and prevention of racism and discrimination. Juventus commissioned and released an entire podcast series on racism, which involved story-telling from first-team players in an effort to sensitise fans. They are now doing the same on mental health.

A handful of clubs isn’t enough, though.

It’s worth remembering how, earlier this season, Victor Osimhen had to put up with his club Napoli’s own TikTok account posting a couple of videos, one of which juxtaposed him with a coconut (a racist term in some parts of the world), upsetting him so much his agent threatened legal action against the club.

More needs to be done at institutional level too.

FIFA’s Swiss-Italian president Gianni Infantino, the man who memorably claimed to have been the victim of discrimination for having red hair as a boy, has signalled he wants to introduce an “automatic forfeit for the team whose fans have committed racism and caused the match to be abandoned”. The president of the FIGC, Gabriele Gravina, has intimated he will take his cue from Infantino. But he could lead on this too.

As for the league, Serie A’s president Lorenzo Casini signed a memorandum of understanding with the government’s national anti-racism office last year to promote equality and fight discrimination. Later in 2023, the agency Roc Nation, which took out full-page ads in Italian papers calling the country’s football industry out on racism after the abuse its former client Lukaku received during a Coppa Italia semi-final against Juventus, entered into a strategic partnership with Serie A “to further enhance the North American reach and appeal of the iconic Italian football league”.

Racist incidents do nothing for it.

“Let’s not make the mistake, because it would be to underestimate the problem, that racism only happens in stadiums,” Casini said. It’s a societal problem, globally, that “needs to be countered at all levels in institutions and schools”.

At the Social Football Summit in Riyadh, where the final of the reformatted Italian Super Cup took place on Monday, Serie A’s chief executive Luigi De Siervo doubled down on the need to better sell its games on the world stage, especially at a time when the international rights are up for renewal and the league is in need of an uplift.

“Italian football has to seek out new fans abroad,” De Siervo said. “The NFL and NBA do it admirably in Europe. No one is shocked by it and Serie A should do the same. The generation before us failed to grasp the prospects of globalisation.”

It failed to grasp racism as an issue too and, although the league has got more serious about it in recent times, who can blame Maignan for thinking “nothing has changed”?

(Top photo: Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)

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