NAPLES — It was the last game of 2018, and I was looking forward to it. I had planned to go with my brother, a staunch Napoli fan, my soccer-loving Argentine husband and a bunch of old friends. It was also a symbolic gesture: I am back in Italy after almost two decades living abroad, and going to the stadium is part of what I consider a show of my sometimes-subdued Neapolitan pride. Plus, I am eight months pregnant: This would be the official introduction of our soon-to-be-born baby boy to the wonderful world of soccer.
But as that last Saturday of December approached, I felt both guilty and a bit wary for having bought tickets for the Napoli-Bologna game.
Death and racial hatred are not exactly what I expect a soccer stadium to represent, but that is what had surfaced just a few days earlier in Milan, on December 26, at a game between Inter and Napoli, third against second in the top Italian league.
Inside the stadium, a section of Inter ultras in the Curva Nord directed racist chants and monkey noises at Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly, a French-born Senegalese defender. Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti later said that Napoli made three requests for the game to be suspended, but he was not heard.
I was watching with my brother, and we were livid.
At the 80th minute, Koulibaly was penalized for a foul, and he responded with a sarcastic applause, which the referee booked with another yellow card. He was sent off.
To me and other Napoli fans, this was adding insult to injury. Yes, there had been a foul, but why wasn't the referee protecting Koulibaly from the racist insults?
I was watching from a TV screen at home with my brother, and we were livid. And we had not yet found out that something worse had happened outside Milan's San Siro stadium. Before the game, as rival supporters clashed, Daniele Belardinelli was killed. He was a Varese ultra fan known to police from previous stadium bans. Investigators say that a combined group of Inter, Varese and Nice (France) ultras who'd developed ties over the years, had attacked a minibus carrying Napoli supporters. Footage shows fans fighting in a street and then Belardinelli being struck by a car. More than 20 people, including several Napoli ultras, are now under investigation in connection with Belardinelli's death.
I could not believe that the death of a fan had not led to the game's suspension. Just as I was shocked to hear that Napoli had tried — to no avail — to get the game suspended for the racist chants. The Italian soccer federation's reaction was to sanction Inter with the following two matches to be played behind closed doors and with a partial closure for its third home match.
Several top soccer players, including Argentina's legend and former Napoli striker Diego Armando Maradona, showed their support for Koulibaly on social networks, and even European football governing body UEFA said that the correct anti-racism protocol had not been followed during the game.
So, why are the Italian soccer authorities not stepping in and taking some serious action?
In some ways, none of this is news. This is not the first time a soccer fan has been killed in Italy (a Napoli fan was killed in 2014 and an A.S. Roma supporter was found guilty of the murder), nor is it the first time racism has surfaced in soccer. But they are particularly ominous within the current political climate in my native country. Since taking over as Italy's Interior Minister in June, far-right Matteo Salvini has smeared groups rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean and criminalized the work of those who defend migrant rights, including most recently a group of mayors rebelling against a new security decree.
In November, United Nations experts released a report concluding that a rise in hate attacks in Italy cannot be separated from politicians "unashamedly embracing racist and xenophobic anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner rhetoric."
I wasn't even sure whether going to the match with my growing belly was safe.
Moreover, just a week before the Inter-Napoli incidents, Salvini was photographed shaking the hand of an A.C. Milan far-right ultra chief accused of bodily harm and drug-dealing. It was difficult to forget when Salvini used to target southern Italians alongside black immigrants. A 2009 video of the now Interior Minister is still available online. He charmingly chants, "What a stench, even the dogs run away, Neapolitans are arriving". Many of my fellow southerners apparently don't remember (or don't care), because Salvini's League party received an unprecedented one million votes from the south of Italy in the March 2018 elections, and the latest opinion poll by IPSOS shows that up to 26% of southern Italians would vote for him now.
So, all of this taken together, I was not much in the mood to go to the stadium. I wasn't even sure whether going to the match with my growing belly was safe.
But when I arrived at the San Paolo stadium, I felt relieved. There were children with their parents, and many elderly fans too. Friends of a friend who live in the UK were sitting with their three-year-old son, in what they consider a necessary pilgrimage to maintain the boy's Neapolitan roots alive.
Most importantly, a large number of people carried fliers with Koulibaly's picture which read Siamo tutti Koulibaly ("We are all Koulibaly"). Some were very young, and they held their print-outs high over their heads. Others wore masks with the player's name, as well as T-shirts. A large majority of the stadium chanted "Kalidou, Kalidou" just before the game started.
When the authorities fail to step in, and their reactions are at best absent, at worst conducive to racism, it is nice to think that there are still individual citizens who eventually can shout louder than the racist chants. But maybe it is just my Neapolitan pride surfacing.
As we left the stadium, after a last-minute victory for Napoli, my brother Mauro looked somewhat uncomfortable. My Boca Juniors-rooting husband cracked a joke, saying that after this heart-stopping victory our baby boy was bound to become a big Napoli fan. And yes, we are even considering Diego as his name — what more than Maradona binds Naples and Argentina? But we were all surprised by Mauro's serious answer: "Maybe it's better if he does not like soccer at all. I still love the game, but everything around it disgusts me." Whatever our son's soccer destiny (and name), it is sure that his introduction to the beautiful game was bittersweet. A bit like my return home to Italy.